Garner Cleveland: Sports

Victory finally comes for the Wildcats

West Johnston's Tanay Smith (11) dribbles the ball past Garner's Gwen Creath (12) during the Wildcats’ Greater Neuse River 4A Conference victory on Tuesday.
West Johnston's Tanay Smith (11) dribbles the ball past Garner's Gwen Creath (12) during the Wildcats’ Greater Neuse River 4A Conference victory on Tuesday. newsobserver.com

West Johnston girls basketball coach Laura Jefferson’s message has been consistent throughout her team’s winless start to the season, “You’re a good team. Believe in yourself and the wins will come.”

Her message finally proved true Tuesday, when the Wildcats beat visiting Garner 58-42.

“It’s hard for a team to keep coming out and play hard when you have no wins,” Jefferson said. “We’ve lost games a lot of close games, but in those games we didn’t look like an 0-7 team. They don’t realize how good they are.”

According to junior guard Christian Sanders, the narrow defeats were valuable experiences.

“You learn from close losses,” she said. “You learn how to fight and what it takes to win.”

The bounces went West Johnston’s way early, including a 25-foot bank shot by Sanders as the buzzer sounded to end the first quarter. Her 3-ball gave the Wildcats a 12-10 lead.

In the second quarter, their lead grew behind solid outside shooting from Sanders and fellow guard Nadia Blevins. The two combined for five three-pointers in the first half and West Johnston led 41-17 at the break.

The third quarter, however, was a different story. The Wildcats (1-7, 1-1 Greater Neuse River) went cold on offense and allowed the Trojans to get back into the game.

Nia Jackson, who finished with a team-high nine points, was the catalyst for the comeback pulling Garner to within six in the early seconds of the fourth quarter. Feeling the momentum swinging in the opposite direction, Jefferson called a timeout to settle her team down.

“I told them that I knew they were going to win this game,” she said. “I told them again how good they are and that they need to know that in order to win. And then I told them to slow down. We still had the lead.”

Her team heeded her advice and the result was a dominating finish. The Wildcats outscored the Trojans 18-9 in the final quarter due mostly to more superb guard play.

Three West Johnston backcourt players scored in double figures. Blevins finished with 11, point guard Tanay Smith added 10 and Sanders led all scorers with 22.

“Our guards are great,” Jefferson said. “Christian can drive to the basket and shoot, or shoot 3-pointers, and play defense. Tanay is great with the ball. She can do it all. Anytime our guards have the ball I’m confident in what we can do.”

It wasn’t completely guard dominated; forward Tehya Lee contributed nine points to go with her team-high eight rebounds.

With one now in the win column, Jefferson’s hoping her team’s confidence will rise. She’s also hopeful the good feeling will make them hungry for more.

“We earned this win,” Sanders said. “We’ve gotten better over the past few games, and it’s about time we won. We want to win. We want a lot more of these.”

For Garner (0-9, 0-3), its winless season continued in a familiar direction, which has not been easy for Coach Hardrick Mays. And his message sounds a lot like Jefferson’s.

“It’s about keeping their spirits up,” Mays said. “We have to keep coming out with more and more energy, and we’ve got to play throughout the game and not just for stretches. We’re struggling to get there, but we’re going to keep working.”

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