9th-Grader Ward Giving Lady Panthers A Fresh Start

21 Second-Half Points Leads Comeback Win In 6-AA

Saturday, February 16, 2013 - by David Jenkins

    In more than three decades as coach of the Brainerd Lady Panthers, Carolyn Jackson has had state champions, Miss Basketballs, All-American and, most recently, two years of probation as Brainerd was barred from postseason play.

    This season, the Lady Panthers and Jackson are back. And leading the way, is a ninth-grader who has the coach entertaining thoughts of bright days to come.

    Asked about Jamee Ward, the Lady Panthers' diminutive freshman point guard who rallied Brainerd from a nine-point deficit to the Hixson Lady Wildcats to a 54-41 win with 21 second-half points, Jackson sounds almost wistful.


    "I think I might like to go out with this one," Jackson said this week.

    Admitting that not being able to take last year's talented team into postseason play took a toll on her, Jackson is appreciating what the 12-13 season has evolved into.

    "The first half of the season, we were terrible," said Jackson, confirming the Lady Panthers' 1-6 start was no fluke. "But where we are now, I'm seeing progress each game."

    Brainerd is taking a 13-11 record into the District 6-AA semifinals this afternoon having won five straight, and nine of 11. That in no small part is due to the quick coming of age of Long, who averages just over 16 points per game but has topped 30 twice in the recent win streak.

    Her game has drawn comparisons to former Tyner standout Katrich Williams, and even in her freshman year, the universal complement is she "plays like a boy." The case in point was Friday night in The Lady Panthes' return to postseason play in the District 6-AA tournament. The ball had scarcely been in her hands as a nervous and unfocused team spotted Hixson an eight-point halftime lead.

    After Jackson, in her words, "prayed over" each of her girls, they came out and immediately began feeding their youngest and smallest player. All Ward did was score 12 points in the third quarter, nine more in the fourth and 24 points in total to lead a 54-41 comeback win.

    "I feel like if the ball is in my hands, everything's good," Ward said. "I want to be a leader, but I feel like if I score, we can make things happen as a team.

    "Tonight, we thought too much about that we'd already beaten them twice. We should have come out tonight like it was the state championship," Ward said.

    "She's had maybe three games so far that I might call breakout games," Jackson said of her freshman. "We've been wanting her to score more, and we have to keep reminding her."

    The secret to Ward's advanced game is really no mystery: she grew up in a house of jocks. Her dad was longtime head football coach at Dalewood Middle, and both of her brothers were mainstays of the Brainerd athletic program. Tyrus graduated in 2002 and E.J. followed suit in 2007 and is currently wrapping up his collegiate career as point guard for Tennessee Wesleyan.

    Both were mainstays on standout teams coached by Brainerd boys coach Robert High.

    "Tyrus was one of the most knowledgeable players I ever coached. E.J. was one of the best perimeter defensive players," High said Friday. "And both of them have been working with her during their off-seasons. As a result, she's way ahead of her time; she's nowhere near the skill level of a ninth-grader."

    "I guess it started with them at the Eastdale Rec Center," Jamee said. "At first I was running track and I learned that I was a lot faster than other girls. I started playing basketball and could drive by anybody with my right hand.

    "But my brothers told me that if I were going to be serious about it, I had to learn how to use my left hand, that I had to learn how to pass it, how to play defense," she added. "I guess I was in the 6th grade."

    Jackson and High have been around long enough to know the best measuring stick for a player like the one Long is becoming redefined local girls basketball some 30 years ago. Her name was Rhonda "K.K." Mikes, and she led the City High Dynahs to a pair of state finals ane one championship shortly after Tennessee girls began playing five-on-five.

    "That's a fair comparison when it comes to style," High said. "But it's not fair to compare them right now because K.K. made her mark as a junior and senior. Jamee's got a long way to go. But I believe she'll make the most of what she has because her brothers and father will make sure."

    In Friday's win, Long hit 7 of 8 field goals in the second half en route to 24 points. JeKaira Walker, who did not enter the game until the second period, finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds and Jasmine Woods posted four points, nine assists and seven rebounds before fouling out.

    Marissa Hill led Hixson with 15 points. McKenna Massengale and Tatyana Staten each scored seven first-half points to held build the Lady Wildcats' lead, but the two players combined for only two points in the second half.

    The Brainerd girls will take on the winner of the Howard-East Ridge game played Friday night. The semifinals being today at 1 with Tyner's girls facing East Hamilton.

Brainerd Avoids East Ridge Ambush

    Coach Robert High kept his perfect streak alive Friday night: in 37 seasons as head coach, his teams have reached the region 37 times. But this year's do-or-die game was full of danger as the Pioneers had beaten him once, then lost in double overtime.

    The key to Friday's 63-54 win was that the visiting Pioneers were playing catchup all night long -- even though they did it really well for much of the night.

    "Even in a two- or three-point game, you'd much rather be the team ahead than the team trying to catch up," said High. "It's that mental pressure of knowing you can't afford to miss compared to just going out and playing."

    The Panther who followed that approach the best Friday was point guard Jay Besley. Finishing with 25 points and three assists, his steady hand was able to make up for the twin off-nights of Brainerd's twin towers, Orlando Moore and Devonte Cooper. Between the two of them, they managed only seven points, 10 rebounds and nine fouls -- Perry fouling out with only two Friday.

    But one of their backups, Tyrese Stubbs, stepped in ably with seven points and eight rebounds off the bench. Marques Tipton added 14 points to the winning effort.
    
    Eddie Hitchcock was a one-man gang for the skidding Pioneers, who ended their season losing five straight. But no one would fault Hitchcock, who nailed six 3-pointers en route to 35. No other East Ridge player scored more than four.

    It was still just a two-point game, 56-54, at the two minute mark, but the Panthers converted 9 of 13 foul shots down the stretch and Stubbs pulled down two key defensive rebounds in addition to hitting three of those clutch freebies. In contrast, East Ridge did not score in the final two minutes.

    "Our philosophy, Brainerd's philosophy, has always been, Free throws win ball games!"  High said.

    The Panthers will play Tyner in the 6:15 semifinal finale today at Hixson High. Central and Howard meet in the first semifinal at 2:45.


District 6-AA at Brainerd
Hixson        8    15    11    7    --    41
Braienrd    7    8    21    18    --    54

    HIXSON (42) -- Marissa Hill 15, Taylor 5, Harmon 3, Staten 7, Massengale 9, Slaughter 2, Yates, Johnson.

    BRAINERD (54) -- Woods 4, Douglas 9, Rowland 7, Jamee Ward 24, JeKaira Walker 10, Ternacia.

    3-point goals: Hixson 1 (Harmon); Brainerd 2 (Ward 2). Records: Hixson 10-13; Brainerd 13-11.

District 6-AA at Brainerd

East Ridge    5    20    13    15    --    54
Brainerd    19    8    14    22    --    63

    EAST RIDGE (54)  -- King 3, Tillery, Davis 4, Millener 3, Talley 3, Davidson 2, Eddie Hitchcock 35, Jones 4.

    BRAINERD (63) -- Jay Besley 25. Marques Tipton 14, Otis 6, Glenn 4, Moore 2, Cooper 5, Stubbs 7.

    3-point goals: East Ridge 8 (Hitchcock 6, King, Millener); Brainerd 4 (Besley 3, Tipton). Records: 10-16; Brainerd 13-11.

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