Wednesday, March 06, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Ladies taking on Rams

Leader sports editor

This Friday night at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, the Jacksonville Lady Red Devils will make the first appearance in school history in the girls basketball state championship game. The opponent will be the Paragould Lady Rams, who not only have been in previous state championship games, but were in the last one, losing last year’s class 5A championship game to Greenwood. This year’s Lady Rams have every starter back from that team, making this year’s championship game one of the most intriguing of the 14-game lineup.

Both teams’ base defense is an aggressive man-to-man and each team will switch to zone at times. Jacksonville (24-4) has gone with full-court and half-court pressure and traps more than Paragould has, but the Lady Devils haven’t done that so far in the state tournament.

While defensive strategies are similar, offenses aren’t. Paragould wants to create open shots for post player and leading scorer Sydney Layrock, and using the inside game to open things up for a group of good perimeter shooters.

Jacksonville creates much of its offense with its defense, but has the best guard-forward combo player in the state in 6-foot-2 Jessica Jackson that is an effective scorer inside and out in the halfcourt set.

“We feel like Jessica gives us at least one advantage no matter who we’re playing,” Jacksonville coach Katrina Mimms said. “Looking at Paragould on film, they don’t have anyone who can match up with her physically. Their post player is very good. She’s very strong and she’s a smart, effective player, but she can’t match up with Jessica physically. She might be pushing six feet, but I don’t think she’s even that tall, and she’s not as quick as Jessica is. So we think that’s one advantage we’ll have.”

One advantage that Paragould may have is championship experience, but Mimms believes her team has been in enough big games this season and last to minimize that factor.

“They were here last year and we missed it by one game,” Mimms said. “But this team has been in some big-time games this year. And when we left that semifinal floor last year with a loss, these girls knew they weren’t going to let that happen again. Now they’re past that and they got rid of that, but they’ve got the attitude that they’re not finished. They’re not satisfied with just being the first Jacksonville team to get this far. They don’t want to let this chance for a title slip away. They’ve been focused.”

The two teams share two common opponents, but little can be learned from them. Each team has played 7A Central members Cabot and North Little Rock. Jacksonville lost twice to North Little Rock in a home-and-home series, and beat Cabot by 30 points at Cabot. Paragould lost at Cabot and beat North Little Rock at home.

“What do you do with that,” Mimms asked. “You can’t take anything away from that. It’s a strange thing.”

Jacksonville hasn’t been very deep most of the season, but has been developing depth over the course of the year, and have been giving bench players more minutes in playoff games. Guards Keke Alcorn and Antrice McCoy have been the biggest contributors off the bench.

“McCoy is a really good ball defender that can come off the bench and get into a point guard’s legs a little bit,” Mimms said. “Keke came off the bench against Huntsville and gave us eight points, and that’s what we need from her.”

Sophomore point guard Shakyla Hill went down with an injury early in the second quarter against Huntsville. She came back in the fourth quarter but wasn’t 100 percent. She is expected to be ready to play on Friday.

Hill has run the point the last two years, and says the transition from eighth-grade ball to varsity was a tough one, but getting this far makes it worth it.

“It was very different because players didn’t do things the same as in eighth grade,” Hill said. “It takes a while to get used to everything, being the youngest one and learning your role in senior high. But I think this is a big deal because as a team we’ve improved so much from last year. Now we just have to keep playing hard and finish it.”

Junior guard Tiffany Smith has a simple characterization for her role. “I’m the shooter,” said Smith. She’s also a two-year starter and sees the biggest improvement from last in cohesion.

“Team chemistry is a lot better,” Smith said. “We’ve really come together as a team and are playing better together.”

Senior Sasha Richardson has been a defensive stopper for three years. Her job in each game is to defend the other team’s best player. As a senior, she remembers some of the lean years that preceded recent success.

“This is good for us and good for our program because we’ve made it so far,” Richardson said. “We weren’t that good for a long time and we want to get this win for coach Mimms because she’s worked really hard to get things where they’re at now.”