Garner Cleveland: Sports

Top girls basketball teams test each other

Jade Phillips (5) of Southeast scores a basket against Amanda Lawrence (20) of Hillside during the 2014 4A eastern regional championship. Southeast won the game, 58-57
Jade Phillips (5) of Southeast scores a basket against Amanda Lawrence (20) of Hillside during the 2014 4A eastern regional championship. Southeast won the game, 58-57

The top four teams in The News & Observer high school girls basketball rankings have taken turns beating one another. Four of the five games they have played among themselves have been decided by two or fewer points.

The coaches say the competition makes them better.

Durham Hillside (13-2), which was No. 1 in last week’s N&O rankings, beat Durham Riverside, 54-46, after losing to the Pirates earlier in the season, 59-57.

Riverside (14-1) topped Millbrook, 55-53.

Millbrook (16-1) downed Southeast Raleigh, 45-44.

And Southeast Raleigh (15-1) beat Hillside, 51-50.

“It is just an indication of how good the girls basketball teams are in the area,” said Southeast coach Nicole Meyers. “We beat up on each other. We have some really good teams.”

And team is the key component, said Millbrook coach Chris East, whose Wildcats won N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A championships in 2012 and 2013.

“The most successful teams have players who believe the team is more important than their individual goals,” East said. “It is a hard thing to buy into. It takes some time.”

East tells each of his squads: “We want to get the best shot that we can get on every possession. That isn’t necessarily the best shot you can get.”

Developing that team-first attitude is part of maintaining a winning basketball tradition, East said. The Wildcats, Southeast and Hillside have been consistently good.

The Millbrook girls have lost nine games since the 2009-10 club finished 19-10. Southeast Raleigh has averaged 25.4 wins during the last five seasons. Hillside has won 15 conference championships during Ovester Grays’ 18-year tenure and has won 22 or more games in six of the last eight years.

“To me, you have to have core values to have a consistent program,” Grays said. “Our core values aren’t basketball related. Our basic core values are having great character and striving to be an excellent student.

“All of our girls need to share those values. If you are consistent in your values, you’ll find that the players that want to be a part of the program share those values. If you don’t share the same core values, you don’t get to share the basketball.”

The Hornets’ overall grade point average is 3.9 and Grays has had 81 players play on the next level.

“I believe the girls actually achieve more and grow more when they put the team first,” he said. “That’s not what they always hear, but it’s true.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to have a girl with a really high scoring average (Justine Lyons leads with 18 points per game this season). Our style of play usually gives us good balance. And that helps our consistency. And it goes back to our core values. We don’t play selfishly.”

East said one of Millbrook’s basketball-related core values is playing hard and unselfishly. He thinks that’s true of other consistent programs.

“They will have a great group of seniors graduate and then have a great group of seniors the next year,” East said. “Part of it, I think, is that they have this tradition of playing so hard, playing together and relying on defense.”

Grays, Southeast’s Meyers and Millbrook’s East switch their lineups around and consider eight or more players as starters.

Meyers believes players earn playing time in practice and games.

“Our players know they are being evaluated all the time,” she said. “We don’t tell them the starting lineup until the announcer gives it at the game. They need to be ready to play.”

Southeast can go with a big lineup, a defensive lineup, an offensive lineup or any of several other groupings.

Jade Phillips, a Syracuse recruit who leads the Bulldogs with 13.5 points, and Amber Richardson, an N.C. State recruit who averages 11, usually are in the lineup, but the Bulldogs took a big win over Hillside this week with Richardson out with a hamstring injury.

Southeast freshman Jada McMillian averages 7.0 and is among a group of players who are capable of scoring 10 or more points whether they start or not.

“It is important to me that our team doesn’t rely on one player,” Meyers said. “We want balance.”

Millbrook’s East doesn’t have a set lineup either. He uses eight or nine players in the rotation and the Wildcats usually have balanced scoring. Sophomore Kai Crutchfield leads the team with 10.6 points per game and sophomore Dazia Powell adds 9.8.

“One of our keys is our defense,” East said. “We want to play great man-to-man defense.”

Riverside has been good in the past and is trying to work itself into the group of consistently outstanding programs.

“Last year, we were like the little engine that could,” said Pirates coach Alicia Jones, who is in her third year as head coach. “We came on strong at the end of last year. Our goal was to play the entire season this year the way we played at the end of last season.”

The Pirates are big with 6-3 1/4 senior Mone’ Jones (15.5 points, 8.3 rebounds), 6-2 3/8 sophomore Aminata Johnson and 6-0 senior Yakima Clifton. Junior Zaria Rogers averages 14.9 points.