In the Paint

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 10, 2001


ESJ completes once in a lifetime season

PHOTO: DANIELLE STEMLEY puts up a jumper while Velinda Ard (55) and Kinya Lennix (23) look on in East St. John’s victory over Ruston in the Class 5A semifinal game last week. All three seniors finished their careers holding school records. (Staff Photo by Michael Kiral) RESERVE – The Louisiana High School Athletic Association awarded the Sweet 16 Tournament to Hammond last summer after Monroe had hosted the event the previous four years. Actually, the name Sweet 16 is a misnomer since 28 teams participate in the tournament. But the name has traditionally stayed the same throughout the addition of three classes. Whatever the name, the East St. John Lady Cats are more than happy to be one of the 28 teams making the trip to Hammond. The team is just as happy to be playing in the University Center on the Southeastern Louisiana University campus, a court they had played on during the summer. East St. John is the fourth River Parishes team to make it to the Sweet 16, the last being the Pokey Chatman-led Hahnville team in 1988. But no River Parishes team had yet won a game in seven previous trips to the tournament. The Lady Cats are looking to change that against Ruston this Thursday night in the semifinals. On the way back from the quarterfinal win at East Ascension, East St. John head coach Troy Giordano had jokingly remarked how wouldn’t it be nice if Ruston could knock off Southwood, the four-time defending state champions and the top-ranked team in the state. When he looked in the paper the next morning, he found out that wish had come true as the Lady Bearcats had won 63-61 in double overtime. Not that the road had gotten much easier. Ruston comes into the game with a 28-7 record, including wins over Sulphur, Dominican and Southwood in the playoffs. The Lady Cats also have tournament experience, having made four previous appearances, including one in the semifinals in 2000. For East St. John, this trip to the Sweet 16 would be a first. The trip would begin shortly after 8 a.m. with a stop at McDonalds for breakfast. Once in the University Center, the team’s experience begins with an individual photo sessions. The Lady Cats are then guided into their locker room where they meet their hostesses for the tournament. The team is loose with the seniors doing spoofs of their previous losses in the postseason. Senior co-captain Kinya Lennix does an imitation of Giordano, going up to freshman Erin Keller and yelling “Give the ball up. Play defense!” Then it’s time for the team pictures, followed by a shoot-around. Once it is finished, the team is driven across the campus to the Wesley Center to rest up for the 5 p.m. tip-off. After a lunch provided by the hostesses, most of the girls lie down in front of the center’s television. Giordano shows he can play a mean game of billiards and table tennis in the rec center. Around 3:45 p.m., it’s time to turn serious again as the Lady Cats head back to the gym. Less than an hour before game time, Giordano gathers the team in the locker room. “At halftime, whether we are up 10 or down 10, sprint off the floor and into the locker room,” Giordano reminds the team. “It should be a close one. I would love to be playing Saturday (in the championship game). How about you? We didn’t come here to be one and done. We came here to win it. We can do it. “We’re not 32-3 for nothing. Do what you did all year. Play defense like you have been doing all year. You’re this close to getting the ring and winning the state championship. They can say what they want on the internet and in the newspapers. If you win, you play for the championship. Thirty-two minutes of hustle, 32 minutes of “A” basketball and you are playing for the state championship.” Early on, it’s Ruston that plays “A” basketball, taking a 12-4 lead on a layup by Katie Bradshaw with 5:22 left in the first quarter. A 3-pointer by Lennix cuts the deficit to one but Nastassja Levingston scores on a drive to make it an 18-14 game at the end of the first quarter. A jumper by Lennix gives the Lady Cats their first lead of the game at 31-29. A jumper by Victoria Umeri ties the game at 33 but East St. John answers with a pass from Danielle Stemley to Velinda Ard inside and two free throws by Lennix to take a 37-33 lead at halftime. “They cannot handle your speed,” Giordano tells the team in the locker room. Play as hard for the next 16 minutes as you did in the first 16 minutes. Box out, get the rebound and run. Keep playing your game. Keep going at them. They are going to make a run, they are going to hit 3-pointers. But everybody sprint back to the paint. “Who wants to be a state champion? It’s right there. Sixteen more minutes and you are playing for the state championship.” Ruston does indeed make a run, tying the game at 40 on two throws by Regina Spivey with 3:09 left in the third quarter. But East St. John answers with a run of its own, starting with a put back by Ard. Stemley finds Kojavona Hamilton inside, then knocks down a jumper from the free throw line to make it 50-42 at the end of the third quarter. Ruston still does not go away, pulling to within 59-56 on a jumper by Levingston with 2:35 left. But Hamilton answers with a put back on the next possession. Lennix and Keller hit six straight free throws in the final 43 seconds to seal the 67-58 victory. Despite a height disadvantage, East St. John holds Ruston to a 48-38 margin in rebounds. Lennix leads the way with 26 points and 11 rebounds for the Lady Cats. Stemley and Hamilton each add 12 points and Ard scores 10 to go with seven rebounds. “I’m excited. We’re playing for the state championship,” Giordano says in the press conference following the game. “They did everything they were supposed to do. We stressed all week all five players going to the boards. We knew they had a height advantage. We had to play fundamental basketball. We had to box out. The key to the game was our speed and keeping them off the offensive boards.” In the locker room, Giordano reminds the team that the journey is not over yet. “We’re playing Saturday for the state championship,” Giordano says. “The seniors stepped up big. But it’s not over. We practice tomorrow and Saturday. We have only one day to prepare for our next opponent. I told you from last year we have a shot to do it. We are 32 minutes from being the state champs.” By the end of the night, the Lady Cats find out who will be their opponent in the finals – John Ehret, a 77-52 winner over Covington. Like the Lady Cats, the Lady Patriots will be playing for their first state title. The End of the Ride For the East St. John Lady Cats, the 2000-01 season will end in the same gym where they prepared for the season the previous summer – the SLU University Center. The Lady Cats had success in Hammond in the summer, capturing the championship at the SLU Camp. Now they are back for a shot at another title, the state championship of Class 5A. East St. John enters the game at 33-4. John Ehret comes in with a 27-game win streak and is 31-2 on the season. The Lady Patriots are making their fourth appearance in the Sweet 16 but like the Lady Cats, are playing in their first title game. East St. John arrives at the University Center for the 7 p.m. tip-off shortly after 5:30, just as the Class 2A final between Loyola and St. Frederick is beginning. The Lady Cats watch the game before heading to the locker room during the third quarter. “Don’t be nervous,” Giordano tells the team in the locker room. “The pressure is on them. You are the underdog. Just go out and play your butt off. You must get back in the paint on defense and box out. Tonight’s game is a battle of who can control the game in the paint. “You are 32 minutes away from being the state champion and all the good things that come with it. Play like there is no tomorrow. I believe you are good enough to do it. I’ve believed it since last year. You have proved that you are the best team East St. John has ever had. You are the team of destiny tonight. You are too close to have them take it away from you.” But it would not be meant to be. On the opening tip-off, the players are lined up wrong. Erin Keller chases down the tip and believing she is shooting at her goal, sinks a 3-pointer. Ehret comes down court with Katrina Stevenson hitting a free throw. The mistake of the opening tip is then realized with the teams switching sides. The switch does not affect Ehret, however, as the Lady Patriots jump out to a 15-7 lead at the end of the first quarter on a jumper by Mashika Davis. It doesn’t get any better in the second quarter. A drive by Alberta Auguste gives Ehret a 21-13 lead midway through the quarter. Two possessions later, Kojavona Hamilton, the Lady Cats’ leading rebounder and second leading scorer, is bumped underneath the basket and goes down. She will not return. Freshman Whitnee Chatman comes in for Hamilton and scores on a put back to cut the deficit to six. Kinya Lennix follows with a 3-pointer from the right side, making it 21-18. But Ehret closes the half on a 9-1 run, capped by a drive by Blessing Chekwa, to take a 30-19 lead into halftime. “You get this far and you play like you are scared to death of people,” Giordano tells the team at the break. “I can’t explain it. I don’t know what to tell you. You have to get in their way. Act like you want to stop them. We have to front the post. Push the ball to the rim. We have to hit the boards. “We have to leave it on the floor. We have 16 minutes left. We can’t be afraid of them. We only have 16 points and we are only down 11. A couple of steals and we are back in it. Just pick up your defense and we are right in it. Let’s get back in the game in the third quarter and make it anybody’s game in the fourth quarter.” Only the Lady Cats quickly find out they are not down 11. The officials meet before the start of the second half and correct the opening basket of the game. Instead of three points for East St. John, two points are awarded to John Ehret, making it 32-16. “I’ve never seen a team score so many points during halftime,” Giordano would joke after the game. East St. John stays in the game, however, cutting the deficit to 34-25 on a put back by Chatman. Ehret again answers as Lariana Landry buries a 3-pointer from the right corner to give the Lady Patriots a 40-27 lead at the end of the third quarter. Keller hits a 3-pointer and a jumper to bring the Lady Cats to within 42-34 with 4:43 left. East St. John has a chance to pull closer two possessions later but Lennix’s 3-point attempt rims out with 3:27 left. The Lady Cats do not score again. Giordano takes his starters out after Stevenson hits two free throws to make it 49-34 with 1:07 left. The final is 51-34. “Hat’s off to Ehret,” Giordano says in the press conference. “They did an excellent job. Their kids played hard. It was tough to lose like this at the end but they deserved it. “We didn’t box out. They are so athletic and we couldn’t get them off the boards. Our strength has been our speed. We are always shorter than everybody else but we overcome height with speed usually. Ehret was taller and just as fast. There then goes our advantage we have on most teams. It presented a matchup problem for us.” Landry is named the tournament’s MVP after scoring 12 points. Lennix scores a team-high 11 points for the Lady Cats and is named to the all-tournament team. The mood is somber in the locker room. But the Lady Cats are quickly reminded they have done nothing to hang their heads about. “There is nothing you could have done more for East St. John,” principal Debra Schum tells them. “You have made history. It’s a history nobody should be embarrassed about. You have brought women’s sports up to another level. East St. John is proud of you.” Giordano echoes Schum’s words. “You set three goals before the season,” Giordano tells them. “You have achieved all three and in life, that’s success. You are 33-4. You broke school records for wins and advanced the furthest. Nobody in the River Parishes has gotten this far. There are 72 teams in 5A. Two were here tonight. You finished as the state runner-up. “You set three goals and accomplished more. Before the season, if you were told you would be the state runner-up, you would not have believed it. That is a tremendous accomplishment. You provided everybody in the state wrong. “Everyone of you played in a state championship game. Everybody got in. You have got a lot to be proud of. This is not a sad moment. You are bringing home that trophy. You are the best team the school has ever had. “You have a lot to hold your head up about. You seniors leave here as five-time district champions. You can leave here knowing you are the state runners-up. You can be proud of that. “Let’s work hard and be district champions again and get back here. We can reach here again.” Getting back there was a promise that Keller makes just before leaving the room. “My next three years are dedicated to come back here and bring back a ring to East St. John,” Keller said. “We know what it takes to get the team back here. It takes dedication, hard work, love of the game and heart.” Looking Ahead When East St. John went 29-3 and had a 28-game winning streak during the 1997-98 season, Lady Cats head coach Troy Giordano called it once in a lifetime season. Three years later, Giordano finds himself having to repeat that quote after a season that saw his team go 33-4 and advance to the Class 5A state championship game. Along the way, the Lady Cats captured their fifth straight district title, set a school record for wins, became the first East St. John team to advance to the Sweet 16 and the first River Parishes team to win a game in the tournament. The team’s ranking of third in the state matched that of the 1997-98 team. “Everything fell in place for us,” Giordano said. “The tournament gets moved to SLU and we get to play 10 games there during the summer. We win district and get a bracket where we face an East Ascension team that we scrimmaged before the season. That was the only road game during the playoffs. Ruston beats both Dominican and Southwood. “Everything fell in place. Everything was going our way. Everything from the district race to the playoff setup. The most amazing thing about the season was watching it fall in place. The team loses three seniors that accomplished as much as any group of seniors in school history. Kinya Lennix leaves the Lady Cats for Tulane as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,255 points. The 113 games the team won while she was a starter was also a record as was her 43 points against South Terrebonne this season. Danielle Stemley is heading to Southern of New Orleans after setting a school record with 338 steals in her career. Velinda Ard is the team’s record holder for rebounds in a game, getting 22 against Thibodaux in 1998. But the Lady Cats bring back two juniors (Courtney Drayton and Deanna Mattos), two sophomores and four freshmen who saw action in the championship game. With that corps coming back, Giordano feels the Lady Cats will be right back in the hunt next season. “We are going to be really young,” Giordano says. “But I still believe we will contend for the district title. We definitely have the talent to win the district title. The experience of this year will help this team have the advantage on any team we play.” Those returning players will soon be at it again. The team will start lifting weights in two weeks before starting spring practice at the end of April. Then comes the games and camps during the summer. They will do it to get to where every team wants to be – playing on the first weekend of March in Hammond.