Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 25, 2012



EDGARD — Even-keeled West St. John coach Lester Smith is not one to get too high after a win or too low after a loss.

But the longtime coach of the Lady Rams wore a broad smile Thursday night.

His Lady Rams had just put the final touches on a breakthrough 40-37 victory over Southern Lab in the regional round of the Class 1A playoffs, sending West St. John to the state quarterfinals for the first time in school history.

“It’s a special moment,” said Smith, whose Rams have won a school record 25 games. “This was a dream of ours … we’d never been out of the regional. It’s a big step for us, the kids are happy, but we all know this isn’t finished yet.”

The Rams will travel to face top-seeded Central Catholic in the state quarterfinals. The winner advances to the Top 28 girls basketball tournament. The game is set for Monday night at 7 p.m.

Jaylyn Gordon led the Rams (25-4) with 15 points. Maya Trench scored 12 and Donasia Bell added nine.

T’Lara Pitts led Southern Lab with 11.

“It feels real good,” Gordon said. “We played a very good team but we fought hard tonight.”

A floater banked in by Trench turned out to be the game-winner for West St. John, putting the Rams up 38-34 with 2:48 left. Brenique Garment scored to answer for Southern Lab, but Gordon sank two free throws to push the lead to 40-36. Pitts hit one of two free throws to pull her team within three with 33.4 seconds left, and Lab had a chance to tie with just under 20 seconds remaining after WSJ turned it over on a carrying violation.

Janell Craig shot a three pointer from the corner that fell short, but Lab had one final chance after Gordon missed the first free throw of a one-and-one. She’d atone, breaking up Craig’s dribble and forcing a miss – after time expired. The celebration was on.

But the Kittens (18-5) had other ideas, leading by as many as nine in the first half. The Rams have won 18 straight games, and the first 17 all came with relative, if not outright, ease.

Lab led 15-10 after consecutive baskets by Jackie Bartley, and 19-10 after buckets by Pitts and Mattie Johnson, the latter coming off of a Pitts offensive rebound and assist.

“We were running after long misses. We felt like they wanted to play all offense and no defense,” said Lab coach Henry Combs. “We pushed it down the floor and (early) they didn’t have the numbers to compensate.”

Gordon hit a three from the wing that rattled home, though, and it ignited the Rams. Johnson scored another basket to make it 21-16, but Gordon fired back with a crossover dribble and a step back three from the top of the circle that make it 21-16.

“Everyone was nervous at the start. But once we got that first one, the nerves went away,” said Gordon. “Then we tightened up our defense.”

Trench was next, hitting her own three pointer, then Gordon tied the game on a transition layup with 2:25 left in the half.

JaJuan Nicholas made a putback just as time expired in the first half to put WSJ ahead at halftime, 23-21. Gordon began the second half riding the momentum she ended the first with, scoring a pair of buckets before feeding Harley Morris for another to make it 29-21.

Morris’ bucket capped a 13-0 run that spanned from the middle of the second quarter until a bit over two minutes left in the third — the Rams held the Kittens scoreless for about 10 minutes of gametime.

“That’s amazing,” said Smith, shaking his head. “I didn’t even realize that.”

Said Gordon, “We adjusted our defense. They were beating our press, so we changed it up.”

WSJ led 29-25 after three quarters.

Combs said that foul trouble against his leading scorer this season, Craig, really turned things around.

“We had a few calls go against us that we didn’t agree with,” he said. “I had to take her out for most of the second half. That’s like taking Kobe away from the Lakers, LeBron away from Miami, Dr. J. away from Philly. We tried to go back inside and committed some unfortunate turnovers.”

In the fourth, the Rams led by six at one point but could never shake free of the Kittens.

In the end, though, West St. John made history for the latest occasion.

“We just had fun,” said Gordon. “When we relax and have fun out there, good things happen for us.”

WEST ST. JOHN 73, LASALLE 38 — In the matchup of eighth and 25th seeds, the favored Rams held true to form against visiting LaSalle on Monday night.

Gordon scored a game-high 29. Nicholas scored and Trench added 16 for the Rams.

West St. John extended an 11-8 first quarter lead to 26-12 by halftime. A 26-9 margin in the fourth quarter broke the game wide open for WSJ.�