I’d like to say happy birthday to two of my favorite basketball players. Both of these young women have given me much basketball joy the last few years. Have a great day, ladies.
When Vanderbilt almost got beat by Love and Basketball in a pre-season exhibition game, there was talk that the Commodores had been overrated in polls that predicted they’d win the SEC Conference. When Michigan beat Vanderbilt almost two weeks ago, that talk surfaced again.
Last night was my first time seeing the Commodores play in person, so I’m not an expert on the team. And having seen Fullerton play already this season (against UCLA), I noticed they put on an unusually good show. So I’m not sure what the truth is.
What I do know is that it took Vandy, currently ranked 16th, until late in the second half to establish a solid run that put Fullerton away. And this was despite stellar performances by three of their starters.
Vanderbilt came out pressing, but Fullerton responded with their own press and a quick three by junior guard Jasmine Scott, who proved to have the hot hand of the night.
Commodore forward Hannah Tuomi scored her team’s first bucket, and proved to be instrumental as she was so effective in the paint. On a team that lists no centers, Tuomi fills that role, and Vanderbilt’s performance began to decline in the first half when Coach Melanie Balcomb took Tuomi out. With 12:55 to go, Fullerton was up 18-12.
Fortunately for Vandy, Christina Wirth jumped in and hit her first of six three-pointers (she was 6-6 for the night) from deep in the left corner. She nailed another one a few minutes later from the top of the key, but Fullerton seemed like they couldn’t miss a shot. At 8:47, the Titans were still up 24-22.
Then Tuomi came back in. She blocked a shot and scored inside. Senior guard Jennifer Risper, whose huge family from nearby Moreno Valley was sitting right behind me (we were all behind the Vandy bench) screaming, stole the ball and went coast to coast for the score. Vanderbilt was up 26-24 at the 7:21 mark. The teams traded baskets before the Commodores went on a small run. Then Fullerton crawled back, scoring 6 in the last few minutes to Vandy’s 2. It was 38-34 Commodores at the half.
My favorite play came early in the second half on a transition. Wirth was already on the right high block and received a quick pass. She held it and held still for about 1.5 seconds – so that a streaking Tuomi could place her body perfectly right in front of the ball. Pass, swish.
But again, the Titans wouldn’t go away. Besides Scott, sophomore guard Lauren Chow was going off. She hit a few baskets, and the score was knotted at 49 with 15:04 to go. Then Vanderbilt went on a run to put them up 56-49 at 12:32. A Risper steal and layup made her family go nuts, but the Titans’ Scott hit another three. It was 62-56 Vandy with about 10 to go. That’s when the Commodores finally started their run. They got it up to 67-58 with 7:25 to go, and despite some mistakes, they were able to hold the lead and build it. At 3:59, it was Vandy 73, Fullerton 62. They never looked back from there.
For whatever reason, Fullerton felt the need to do a weird back court press on their opponents in the last 10 seconds. Maybe it was just to prove a point, but they didn’t need to do that. They played Vanderbilt tough, and I was impressed.
Tuomi scored 17 points in 20 minutes of play. Wirth had a career high 27 points that included her six three-pointers. And Risper scored a season-high 14 points. For the Titans, Chow ended with 20 and Scott had 19. I was very impressed with all of their performances, but especially Tuomi’s; she’s only a sophomore.
– Vanderbilt travels with a huge entourage. When I first walked in, I saw all these people sitting on their bench and wondered why they let fans sit there before the game. It turns out that besides Balcomb and three assistant coaches, there were five other people. That’s a lot.
– One of those people was a 40-ish water girl. She insisted on having the water cart directly in back of the bench, which would block the view for me, so I moved to the right. It’s a good thing they didn’t care where you sat at Fullerton.
– It was kind of annoying not to be able to keep track of player points, but Fullerton has a pretty small gym and facility, so I guess that precludes a good scoreboard.
– Vanderbilt players and coaches are real big on leaning on one another and putting a hand on a teammate’s shoulder or waist.
Final thought: both teams are better than they played. If Fullerton had played like that against UCLA, they would have given the Bruins a better run. Vanderbilt has a ton of skill, and it shouldn’t have taken them that long to dominate the Titans.
All my adult life I’ve felt that life here on Earth is really just a movie. That fiction is pretty much unnecessary for all the crazy, insane crap that goes down. And that also includes so-called “coincidences” and “deja vus,” which I believe are only metaphors for the Universal law that cycles repeat themselves. Fewer places is that more apparent than in basketball.
Yesterday I visited Washington Prep High School to talk with the women’s basketball coach and check out what they’re up to, for a story I’m writing. While Coach Ricky Blackmon and I were talking, the infamous semi-final game of Feb. 23, 2007 against Dorsey came up. Dig this: Blackmon used to play for Dorsey High School. When he was a junior (like Mykiea) in 1993, Dorsey beat Washington in the semi-final for the city championship by three points, due to a last-second shot.
Too freaky for words. But there are other instances like that.
On April 6, 2008, Tennessee and LSU were battling in the NCAA semi-finals, with the winner to go to the championship. Alexis Hornbuckle made an incredible put-back shot at the buzzer for the one-point win.
Fast forward to Sept. 27, 2008 and the LA Sparks and the San Antonio Silver Stars are battling in the semi-finals of the Western Conference championships. The Sparks, which include two Tennessee players who played in the LSU semis last year, lose because of a crazy last-second shot at the buzzer. I’m sure most basketball fans can think of a similar “deja vu” or two.
A wise woman told me once, “remember, we’re all just down here wearing a clown suit.”
And I thought the Northridge game was a blowout.
The Bruins put such a whoop on CSB last night that it was hard to believe. Before the Roadrunners (great name, huh?) made their last basket, UCLA was up by 50 points.
The Bruins are starting to look consistent, which is what every coach strives for.
Like Sunday, the Bruins shot about 46 percent for the game last night, including 45 percent for both halves instead of just one. And once again, strangely, they grabbed 54 boards and saw four players in double figures. All 12 players scored for the second game in a row, and the scoring was so balanced that no player scored more than 13 points last night. (Christina Nzekwe was one of those players, bettering the career-high she pulled down last weekend). Not coincidentally, no player was in the game for more than 22 minutes.
UCLA set or tied season-highs in points scored (104), rebounds (54), three-pointers made (seven), blocks (five) and assists (23). This is the Bruins’ best start since the 2004-05 season. Color me very impressed.
Coach Nikki Caldwell looked like a model last night in her scoop-neck sweater and large gold necklace. Bakersfield is to be commended for bringing a large contingent of fans and cheerleaders.
Sitting in front of us were three little girls. During a timeout, Chinyere Ibekwe was making faces at one of them. The kid said her auntie, Noelle Quinn, used to play for the Bruins. That said a lot about the closeness of the team that players would still know the relatives of former players.
There aren’t as many details to report of late because blowouts tend to go smoothly. But Sunday’s game against Nevada might pose a challenge for UCLA, as that team beat Louisville recently. I actually would like some kind of a game, because while I’m very happy the Bruins are gelling, blowouts are kind of boring.
By now everybody knows that yesterday the Bruins won by their largest margin in six years, that they had 22 steals, forced 32 turnovers, had 54 rebounds and had a shooting percentage of over 40 percent for both halves, and not just one. That Erica Tukianien and my girl Christina Nzekwe each had career-high point totals. That four players scored in double figures and two had eight rebounds each, and that all 12 players scored.
So I’ll provide the between-the-lines stuff.
The Bruins look better with each game, and yesterday they were a 35-minute team. They would have been 40 if there wasn’t a little lapse in the very first part of the game, where they’d built a lead and then let Northridge catch up. But once UCLA made a run, there was no looking back.
Their defense was excellent throughout the game. For example, in the first half Doreena Campbell and Allison Taka trapped a player right in front of their bench, forcing a turnover.
The boxing out clicked with a few minutes to go in the first half, and stayed solid throughout most of the rest of the game. Players were also scoring that don’t usually, like Taka. Looking at the box score (http://uclabruins.cstv.com/sports/w-baskbl/stats/2008-2009/csunucla.html) there’s a lot of balance in the scoring, and that’s such a good sign.
The Bruins had good ball movement, too. Gone was any sluggishness Coach Nikki Caldwell had been after them for in previous games; they were passing, dishing and running that ball along. They were also getting it into the paint to score and not settling for dumb outside shots. I think that made me the happiest of all.
It’s a pleasure to see Darxia Morris back, and she is apparently happy to be there too. She got hot late in the second half, reeling off two shots in a row. With 3:40 to go, she drove into the key, and when a defender started to lunge for her, she did a neat head fake and took one more step to put the jumper in clean. She backed away and stood by herself at half court for a moment, grinning. It was funny.
After the game, Caldwell said the team “makes it a point to generate their own energy,” and that they do that with defensive play. (Ah, I hear “Rocky Top” in the background). Caldwell said the Bruins have to play with intensity no matter who they’re playing.
“We want to be a part of March Madness,” she said.
I want them to be in there, too, and they have a good chance. I predict they’ll finish no lower than fourth in the Pac-10, and maybe as high as third behind Cal and Stanford.
I see the Bruins like a car that finally got to get out of the garage at the beginning of the season. They spent some time driving down the road towards the interstate. Now they’ve turned onto the on-ramp and are just about ready to blast down the freeway.
The future is bright.
Another bright spot yesterday was the attendence, which was up. Caldwell has been getting out and hustling to get people to come to games. How great is that? I love her even more now.
AP’s new rankings came out today:
I’m still pondering it, but I don’t understand how Rutgers didn’t play last week at all. That’s weird to me.
And Texas in the top 10? Wow. Coach G is on fire.
But like I said, still pondering.
On the sad side, the Houston Comets folded today. One of the league’s pioneers, and its champions for the first four years of its existance.
I know another team will eventually rise again, but it’s disheartening to see one of the originals go. I hope Tina Thompson finds a team that’s good for her.
Perhaps the biggest upset of the season so far was Wisconsin’s win last night over seventh-ranked Baylor, 59-58. What happened? Baylor’s been steamrolling, and Wisconsin isn’t supposed to be a very good team.
In other upsets, Nevada defeated eighth-ranked Louisville, and nineteenth-ranked Arizona State fell to Florida. That parity thing is just spreading like a virus.
As for Pac-10 teams Saturday night, California stayed unbeaten in their defeat of Iowa, and Oregon State continued to surprise. They beat Arkansas Friday night, and came very close to defeating North Carolina the next night, 78-82. Could the Beavers finally be for real? Daniel and I think they are. I’ve been wanting the Oregon schools to show up for a while, so this is good news to me.
And speaking of Oregon, I’m happy to say that the Ducks beat Wyoming tonight, 51-45. Let’s go, Bev Smith!
One of the five Pac-10 teams that wasn’t in some kind of holiday classic this weekend was UCLA. They beat Cal Poly Wednesday, and must have chilled and gone shopping because their first game back is today, against Cal State Northridge. Game report later, of course.
Changing gears, by now many have seen the video of the five-year-old girl from Northern California dribbling two and then three basketballs at once. She is both skilled and adorable:
Milan Simone Tuttle has been getting tons of press for this video, which originally appeared on pro baller Rod Benson’s blog. Here’s one feature:
She’s also been on TV:
The day before Thanksgiving, Milan was a guest on the Ellen DeGeneres show, which is now on youtube.
I’m writing a story on her and on the place where she got the training, Triple Threat Academy of San Leandro, CA, for fullcourt. Today I talked to Milan’s mother, Renee Tuttle, and I was as impressed with this woman as I was with her daughter.
Renee and her husband Jon encourage their kids to do what they want instead of pushing them into sports and other activities. They are being incredible sticklers about completing school work before anything else, and it’s already instilled in their kindergartener. They also insist she remain humble, because “we still have to go home, and I have to go to work and you have to go to school,” Jon Tuttle said.
Could we just get these people to parent all the young ballers of America? Life for us teachers and coaches would be so very much more simple.
Mykiea Russell is the new point guard for the Umpqua Community College women’s basketball team. She began showing what she was made of the moment she got there.
In a scrimmage against Linn-Benton CC a couple months ago, Mykiea scored 19 points and collected nine steals. As the team has begun their regular season, she has usually been the second-leading scorer.
Her coach, Dave Stricklin, wrote in her team profile that at 5’0″, Mykiea is the shortest player to ever don a Riverhawks uniform, but she might also be the quickest. He predicted she is “destined to be a UCC fan favorite.” Similarly, a reporter for the Roseburg News-Review noted her “knack for getting to the basket” in a recent story.
But why is Mykiea there? Because some coaches believed the height.
“As we talked to (college) coaches last year, some had an issue with my height,” Mykiea said. “They were worried about me getting posted up on defense.”
Her longtime club ball coach Michael Brox called up a well-respected coach he knew – Stricklin – and told him about Mykiea. Stricklin came to Los Angeles last March for a ceremony inducting him into the California JCC hall of fame (he coached there before going to Umpqua). During that trip, he paid Mykiea a visit at her home.
“We just hit it off right away,” Stricklin explained.
Right after Labor Day, Stricklin got a call from Mykiea.
“‘I’m coming up,'” Stricklin recalled her saying. “I said, ‘for a visit?’ and she said ‘no, I’m coming up to stay.'”
Mykiea arrived the first weekend in September, about three weeks before school was to start, and before any of her teammates. Stricklin did the only thing a coach could do: he put her up at his house with his family. And it wasn’t long before she “became part of the family.”
In fact, Mykiea fit in so well with Stricklin’s teenaged children that when he took her along when registering one for school, the secretary thought he was also enrolling Mykiea.
All last-minute notifications aside, to understand the sheer bravery involved in Mykiea’s move, first consider that the population of Roseburg is 20,117, and the number of people in Los Angeles is 9,948,081. Then, realize that the area where Mykiea went to high school is virtually all African-American and Hispanic, while Roseburg is 93.56 percent white and .3 percent African-American.
Unsurprisingly, Mykiea discounts those differences, and scoffs at the notion the she is brave.
“I don’t see it like that,” she said.
Indeed, Stricklin told her what to expect on his visit.
“I told Mykiea about the non-racial diversity, and she said ‘I don’t care,'” he said. “I also told her that Roseburg is not a party house. That if you’re looking for a wild atmosphere, this isn’t the place.”
Mykiea has adjusted the way any evolved inner-city kid would: she is jonesing for her Christmas visit home, but she likes where she is going to school, likes her team, and is cool with where she is right now.
“Roseburg is the most boring place on Earth, but on the other hand I don’t have to worry about what I’m wearing, and there are no distractions,” she said.
Culturally, though, Mykiea has had to make some adjustments. Roseburg is populated with older people – many of whom are lifelong Roseburg residents. Mykiea said she has felt, at times, that some residents “have never seen a black girl in their lives.”
“I’ve had to answer questions – a lot of questions,” she said.
For her fortitude, Mykiea finds herself in one of the most successful junior college programs in the Northwest. Stricklin, with a 586-112 record in 21 years, has produced 12 regional championship teams. Every year the goal is the same: win another championship.
“Practice is so hard – oh my goodness,” Mykiea said. “The first practice he told us we were going to go as hard as Tennessee.
“He wants 100 percent the whole three hours, and nothing less. Even if you mess up, you have to mess up going hard.”
Stricklin said he and assistant coach Linda Stricklin – his wife – also keep player’s futures in mind.
“We work so hard to get them to the next level,” he said.
Mykiea said she might not have ever thought of a junior college as a possibility if it weren’t for one of the most famous graduates from JC ranks – Tennessee’s Shannon Bobbitt. Mykiea called Bobbitt, who is also infamously short, “my inspiration.”
While playing ball, Mykiea is taking a full class load and majoring in film – the other love of her life. Stricklen also set her up with a work-study job, so she has some extra money in her pocket. Life is good, although the weather is a little colder in Oregon than what the young baller is used to.
Mykiea doesn’t consider herself brave, but I am old enough to be her mother, and I know better. I teach high school in South Central Los Angeles, and not many kids there would pick up and go to a place they’ve never been to, that is so different from what they’ve known. Indeed, most only go as far as Southwest Community College, just down the road from Mykiea’s alma mater, Washington Prep High School.
And most kids with Mykiea’s skill level – who had made the LA All-City first team two years in a row – that couldn’t get to a D1 school simply because of their height, would be at least a little depressed or bitter.
Not Mykiea. She is positive, optimistic, hopeful. She laughs a lot. And she is working hard.
“I just finally, really got in shape,” she said last week. “So I’m going to stay in shape.”
I know she will. And I have no doubt that she is kicking ass at the Clackamas Tournament in Portland this weekend. I just wish JCCs got more love and it was easier to get scores and stats from up there.
In the meantime, I’m going to keep being a Mykiea fan. Stricklin said he’ll send me an Umpqua CC women’s basketball T-shirt and team poster when they’re ready, and I’ll happily wear the shirt around Los Angeles.
Go on with your bad self, young lady. You remind me why I’m a women’s basketball fan in the first place.
Russell became Mykiea to me last year, as I had the pleasure of getting to know her a bit. And Mykiea had an amazing senior year playing for the Washington Prep Generals.
Buoyed by their success the previous year, the team came out strong and immediately started racking up victories. Their only real opponents in the Marine League were Narbonne, back from suspension and fully loaded with five Division I-level seniors.
In addition to her incredible quickness, Mykiea is an expert at handling and distributing the ball. If she wasn’t finding the perfect Washington player for the assist, she was taking the ball to the rack herself – at 5-foot-nothing – and scoring. In fact, Mykiea was the leading scorer on her team last year, despite being the shortest by far.
On an offensive set, the ball always seemed to come back to Mykiea. Such a natural point guard I have hardly witnessed. I can still see her in my mind’s eye, racing around the top of the key with the ball, head slightly forward, like a vulture waiting to pounce.
She gave opponents fits.
I told Mykiea recently that at least one opposing coach last year admonished her team at a timeout to clamp down on Mykiea, because she said “the offense runs through her.” Mykiea seemed surprised.
“Noooo, it didn’t!” she protested.
I told her, “but it seemed like it did.”
Mykiea had a career-high 10 assists and scored 16 points in a Jan. 11 game against King-Drew, and posted 12 steals and collected four boards against Gardena Jan. 23. In the Jan. 16 Carson game, she had seven rebounds, eight steals and 11 points.
Here’s a highlight reel to show what the girl can do:
In Washington’s first matchup with rival Narbonne on Jan. 18, Mykiea poured in a season-high 25 points as her team came close to upsetting the Gauchos at home. The Generals hadn’t beaten that team in 12 years, but it felt like they were getting close; Washington was visibly hungry. As the players went through the hand-slap line after the game, I felt a sense of foreboding.
On Feb. 6, Narbonne traveled to Washington for the second meeting. This is where I fully understood the uniqueness of that school.
Washington Prep High School stands in the heart of one of the roughest areas of South Central Los Angeles. It is in “Crip” gang territory. Two years ago there was a shooting on campus; last spring there was another one.
Yet, the school has tremendous pride in its athletics programs, among other things. The night of the Narbonne game, the Washington gym had a healthy crowd that was loud, as usual. A group of boys ran the pre-game warmup music, including D4L and the Pop It Off Boyz – hardcore selections. The crowd stood fully behind its girls team, and cheered every basket like it was the national championship winner.
The Prep girls also had fun on their team. When shooting free throws pre-game, they had a ritual they always performed: once the shooter shot, the rest of the team would chant “Preeeep!” while they simultaneously slid over one to the left. Once they got to their new spot, they’d pick up their left knees and do a little “uh uh” dance bop thing. They always turned heads when they did that. And when I took my basketball girls from the school where I teach to see Prep play last December, I think they wished they were on that squad.
So in the February rematch game, Narbonne started out with a small lead, and by the second and third quarters, it had grown to as much as 10. Prep shrunk it to five and then the Gauchos blew it back up to 10, twice. But in the fourth quarter, the Generals clawed back and caught up. A free throw put the score even, at 44 points.
It wasn’t any specific play that lead to the outcome, but a series of circumstances that kept repeating themselves. Narbonne couldn’t rebound much, and they weren’t boxing out. In fact, Mykeia out-rebounded the two Gaucho posts twice. The entire Washington squad seemed to be rebounding machines, and they made brilliant passes. They finished their plays and scored, while the Gaucho defense lagged.
It was a Mykeia three-pointer from the top of the key that put them up 47-44. A play later they had another girl at the FT line, and she sunk one shot: 48-44. Narbonne’s Reiko Thomas unleashed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but it was too late: 48-47. The Gaucho era was over.
It was a monumental accomplishment for Washington to wipe out a 12-year-old losing streak to Narbonne. But they showed their class by calmly and stoically going through the handshake line while their fans were screaming and jumping around. Whatever celebration the team might have had, it was in the locker room.
Two weeks later the two teams faced each other yet again – ironically, for the same right to play for the city championship that Washington had played Dorsey for the previous year. It was the same flippin game. And this time it was at Washington, because they’d been seeded higher than their opponents.
Narbonne came out strong and took an early lead, which was a switch from the two previous games against Washington where they’d been slow out of the gate. The Gauchos built a 14-point halftime lead, but the Generals came out blazing in the third and went on a 10-0 run. Narbonne also got in foul trouble. Prep was behind by four, and things were scary for the Gauchos for a bit.
Then Narbonne turned on the gas and started to build some more points. It went up to a 10-point lead, which Washington cut to 6 a couple times. The Generals were relentless. But after a Gaucho timeout, the team held on to win by eight.
Mykiea was calm and relaxed after the game; no sign of the flower-banging aggravation of the previous year. She said she wanted to play ball and study film in college, as those were her two main passions in life. She also wanted to get out of the ‘hood.
“It’s just so negative,” Mykiea said wistfully, but added that maybe someday, she’d like to come back and help out the area somehow.
She didn’t know where she was going to college yet; there was a lot of uncertainty there. As if to mitigate such feelings, Mykiea smiled and said, “well, I’ve had a great high school career.”
A week later, Washington again lost in the first round of the state playoffs. For the second year in a row, Mykiea was named to the all-city first team (she had made second team as a sophomore) – a tremendous accomplishment in a city the size of Los Angeles.
I provided a couple names of college coaches I knew that might be interested in Mykiea. Every time I talked to the Washington Athletic Director, I asked her if Mykiea had found a school yet. The answer was always no.
Why wouldn’t a school be interested in someone like Mykiea, with more heart than an organ bank and the skills to match? I was truly puzzled.
In August I again talked to the AD, who informed me that Mykiea was going to Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR. And she was going there “blind” – not having taken a visit first. I was dumbfounded.
Why was a player like Mykiea going to a junior college instead of Division I? Why a small town in Oregon? And why didn’t she take a visit there?
Three months later, I discovered the answers to these questions.
It was Feb. 23, 2007 – a chilly Friday night. The high school basketball team I had helped coach for the second consecutive year had finished its season two weeks before, leaving me free to check out playoff games. Armed with my coaches pass, I drove to Dorsey High School.
I’d been intrigued by both Dorsey and Washington Prep – the two teams matching up that night. Both were good squads of players with exceptional skills, from reputable programs. Still being new to Los Angeles, I wanted to see the faces to the names I’d heard.
The winner of the game would advance to the city finals eight days later, and Dorsey was the favorite by far. They had won their league, and seemingly everything else. They also had a couple of highly-touted players – one of them a senior point guard – who carried the team.
Prep was playing in the game because the champion of their league, Narbonne, was serving a suspension that year for playing an ineligible player (Morghan Medlock, now of Baylor) the year before. Washington, known for their athleticism, had a few name players – one of them being their pint-sized point guard Mykiea Russell.
The general attitude before the game was that Prep was lucky to be there, and Dorsey would scald them.
The Dorsey gym has a round roof, and windows on both ends of the court. You can literally walk right outside the gym and watch the game through the window. Double doors are also at one end of the court, between the windows. Occasionally when a player goes flying out of bounds and can’t stop, she hits the door and lands outside. I’ve never seen anything like it.
One thing was apparent immediately: the Dorsey Dons are serious about basketball. Giant picture posters of the girls basketball team lined the wall on one side of the court, while the boys team was on the other side.
The requisite cheerleaders were in place and ready to go with their sassy attitudes and “bring it on” cheers. For example, during the game when Washington missed a free throw, the Dorsey cheerleaders would clutch their hearts and mockingly moan, “aww!” I loved it down to my toes.
The guy I sat next to ended up becoming a friend of mine. But I suppose it would be hard not to bond with a fellow basketball nut when you happened to see the best high school game of your life together.
I wish I could provide an entire game play-by-play, but I wasn’t armed with a notebook that night and some of the details have fuzzed in the almost two years since. But here’s what I do remember: Dons PG Erica Inge and Russell went at it all night long. So did their teams.
What was supposed to be a blowout was a back-and-forth game of heart-stopping proportions. Dorsey would score, Washington would answer; Washington scored, Dorsey answered. One team would make a small run and then would be stopped by the other team. Back and forth, back and forth. Dorsey was ahead once by six points, but that lasted all of eight seconds. For the rest of the time it was one point, two points, three points, or a tie.
Then, the last 20 seconds.
Washington had the ball. Their 2 guard fell to the floor and almost lost it as the Dorsey guard tried to claw it out of her hands. But the 2 somehow dished it to Russell, who streaked up the court and somehow cut through two guards with this crazy little dribble weave move. She went all the way to the rack for the score, and it was 54-53, Washington. Dorsey got the ball, but the Generals deflected the pass out of bounds. Timeout. Dorsey inbounded from the side and tried this play that didn’t work. The crowd had been on its feet since 30 seconds to go. The tension in the gym was thick.
Washington inbounded from the baseline, but it was deflected, and the second Washington player tried to chase it. She couldn’t get to it, and the ball went out of bounds. Dorsey ball with 6.5 seconds to go. The Dons were passing it around the key when Russell lunged, seemingly from out of nowhere. It was a total shock, and you could hear the cries in the crowd. She hauled ass down the court and laid it up and in as time expired.
Washington, 56, Dorsey, 53, said the scoreboard. Then came the thunderous explosion of screaming, as Prep cheerleaders started jumping up and down and the crowd of red-clad fans poured onto the court.
I sat there, mouth hanging open, while the rest of the Generals piled onto Russell. My new friend Don sat in stunned silence as well. To our right, two of the Dorsey seniors had fallen to the floor in grief. Friends surrounded them, trying to talk them into getting up, but they just laid there, inconsolable.
It was quite a scene, and it exemplifies the reason I love the high school game so much: there’s an incredible amount of passion there. It seems like life and death much of the time – for sure in the playoffs, but at other games, too.
The Generals and their people began taking their celebration out that door I mentioned before. Don and I walked down to the court. I knew one of the Washington coaches from another school, and I asked her what grade Russell was in. She told me she was a junior.
Don and I exchanged info and said goodbye. But on my walk out, the Prep players were running around, giddy, while some adults males shouted sporadically, “who’s house?”
I saw Russell to my left, with two teammates, giggling. I stopped and smiled at her.
“Congratulations!” I said. “You’re amazing – your team couldn’t have done it without you.”
Russell’s smile got a tiny bit bigger.
“Thank you, maam!” she said cheerfully, before turning back to her hyped-up teammates.
I walked to my car chuckling. Geez – she can play ball and she has manners too, I thought.
The following weekend I went to the LA Coliseum to watch the full day of games that would culminate in the city championship. Unfortunately, Washington was no match for the powerful Taft team, stacked with seniors. Taft was ahead by 10-12 for long stretches, but in the fourth quarter, the Generals turned it on and began to catch up. It was too little too late, though, and they lost 36-39.
In an emotional awards ceremony, the Washington principal thanked Coach Ricky Blackmon and told him how important he was to the school. Each player got a boquet of red roses, and I watched Russell bang hers on the floor during the trophy presentation. Petals scattered, but she didn’t notice. She looked both grieved and irritated.
Three days later, the Generals lost in the first round of the state playoffs. But Russell and her team had captured my attention.
And from the video, you can see she’s cut her hair. Love the double-finger point at the end:
Much happiness to ya, girl.