Highlights from the game of the top players in the class of 2012 from the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
DENVER, CO. - If the results of Saturday afternoon's Women's Basketball Coaches' Association (WBCA) High School All-American Game held annually in conjunction with the NCAA's Women's Basketball Final Four are any indication, Connecticut and Notre Dame have some very good years still ahead of them long after the curtain closes on this extended weekend's Final Four. Tennessee, Clemson, Rutgers and USC should all get shots in the arm as well.
The White team, comprised of three future Connecticut Huskies -- Morgan Tuck (6-2, F, Bolingbrook H.S., Ill.), Moriah Jefferson (5-7, G, home-schooled, Glenn Heights, Tex.), and Breanna Stewart (6-3, F, Cicero-North Syracuse H.S., North Syracuse, N.Y.) -- and two bound for Notre Dame -- Jewell Loyd (5-9, G, Niles West H.S., Lincolnwood, Ill.) and Michaela Mabrey (5-9, G, Manasquan H.S., Holmdel, N.J.) -- dominated this year's WBCA All-American Game from opening tip to final buzzer, running out to a 17-point first-half lead (44-27), and then hanging tight through a second-half Navy rally to emerge with the 74-62 victory.
The White squad also featured one player each headed to Tennessee -- Bashara Graves (6-2, F, Clarksville H.S., Tenn.), Clemson -- Jonquel Jones (6-2, F, Riverdale Baptist H.S., Ellicott City, Md.), Rutgers -- Kahleah Copper (6-1, G, Prep Charter H.S., Philadelphia, Penn.), and USC -- Jordan Adams (6-1, G, Mater Dei H.S., Irvine, Calif.). Jasmine Jones (6-1, F, Bob Jones H.S., Madison, Ala.) remains undeclared).
Notre Dame-bound Loyd was named MVP for the winning White side, behind a game-high 18 points to go with eight rebounds, also a game-high, and three assists. Loyd dropped 16 points in the first half including three three-pointers and was cheered on by the entire Notre Dame team who were sitting courtside. Jonquel Jones was hot on her heels with 14 points, seven boards, two assists and a block for the White, and Stewart, the National Player of the Year for both the WBCA and the McDonald's All-American teams, finished with 10, plus six boards, and assist, and a game-high four blocks.
Meanwhile, the Navy team survived a first-half of disastrous shooting, rallying in the second period to put a respectable score on the board. The Navy team was allotted two future Texas Aggies -- Courtney Williams (6-1, W, North Shore H.S., Houston, Tex.) and Jordan Jones (5-6, G, DeSoto H.S., DeSoto, Tex.); two soon-to-be Maryland Terrapins -- Malina Howard (6-3, Post, Twinsburg H.S., Ohio) and Tierney Pfirman (6-2, F, South Williamsport H.S., Williamsport, Penn.); and one player each headed to Duke -- Alexis Jones (5-8, G, Irving MacArthur H.S., Irving Tex.), Oklahoma -- Nicole Kornet (5-11, G, Liberty Christian School, Lantana, Tex.), North Carolina -- Xylina McDaniel (6-2, F, Spring Valley H.S., Blythewood, So. Car.), Baylor -- Alexis Prince (6-2, W, Edgewater H.S. Maitland, Fla.); and UCLA -- Nirra Fields (5-9, G, Mater Dei H.S., Irvine, Calif. originally from Montreal, Canada, and currently residing in Los Angeles, Calif.) Imani Stafford (6-7, Post, Windward H.S., Los Angeles, Calif.), who has committed to the University of Texas, was also named to the Navy squad but did not play in the game.
Nicole Kornet, who heads off to Oklahoma this summer, was honored as MVP for Navy, after finishing with 12 points, three rebounds, an assist and three steals, and an excellent all-around defensive effort. Fields notched a team-high 14 points, five boards, an assist and a steal for Navy, but gave up four turnovers; Alexis Jones logged 11 points, four rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal.
Jefferson matched Alexis Jones for the game-high with four assists, but gave them back, plus one, in turnovers; she did have a solid defensive game, however, including three steals. Navy's Courtney Williams and Kornet also swiped three steals apiece to tie Jefferson for the game-high in that category.
Since the ultimate goal of the WBCA High School All-American program is to bring the nation's best high school seniors together on the court for an evening and to showcase their talents in a game that is both exciting and reasonably close, it came as a considerable surprise when the White ran out to one of the most lopsided first-half advantages this writer has ever seen in an All-Star game of this sort. Shooting 42.9 percent (15-35) from the field and an impressive 41.2 percent (seven-of-17) from the arc in the first 20 minutes, the White outscored the Navy, 44-27, in the first 20 minutes alone.
Meanwhile, the Navy squad couldn't seem to find the basket with a map and a homing signal, shooting a miserly 23.8 percent (10-of-42) from the field and an even worse 15.4 percent (two-of-13) from the perimeter in that span. That poor shooting was enough to wipe out the Navy squad's only advantage on the scorecard -- the 14 White-team turnovers it had forced with a first-half total of 10 steals. (By comparison, the White had swiped only three steals in the opening period, with the Navy giving up just six turnovers.)
If things continued on their first-half trajectory, Navy was well on its way to the dubious distinction of becoming the lowest scoring team in the history of the WBCA All-American Game, a record set by the White Team who finished with 47 points in 2006.
What could account for the complete lack of balance evidenced between the two squads for the first 20 minutes?
Clearly, it wasn't a lack of talent: Selection as a WBCA High School All-American is one of the most prestigious awards a girls' basketball player can receive in her senior year. The 20 players named to the roster are selected by a nine-member committee of high school coaches representing geographical regions from across the country. While there can often be debate around the fringes as to whether a particular player who failed to make the final cut should have been included, there is usually fair consensus that the core of the roster represents the best-of-the-best in the sport.
There's also typically a considerable degree of overlap between the WBCA All-American selections and those of the McDonald's High School All-American Girls' Game, even though McDonald's employs a somewhat different selection process that also includes several rounds of voting by AAU coaches, representatives of scouting services, members of the media and others involved in the sport. This year, 15 of the 20 WBCA All-Americans were also named to the McDonald's All-American roster.
And though the McDonald's All-American program forms its East and West rosters according to the geographical alignment of the participants' high schools, neither selection to the WBCA All-American team nor assignment to its color-denominated rosters is geographically restricted -- a distinction that in years past the WBCA has argued has given it greater latitude to both to select the nation's best players and design the most evenly balanced teams.
Balance certainly wasn't much in evidence in this year's game, however, especially in the opening half.
You may recall that the McDonald's All-American Game, played this past Wednesday in Chicago, was so close, in fact, that the outcome came down to a single free-throw, netted by Tennessee-bound Bashaara Graves (6-2, F, Clarksville H.S., Tennessee) in the final three-tenths of a second, to carry the East to a 79-78 victory over the West.
How could this be? Had the WBCA committee somehow managed to take every one of the top shooters from the McDonald's game and assign them all to the White side?
Actually, no, though if this had been the case, it would have been inadvertent, since the WBCA roster assignments had already been locked in before the McDonald's Game had been played, according to a WBCA spokesperson. Instead, she explained, the committee had decided to set up this year's teams with all of the players headed for the same university playing together on the same side.
As it turned out, that arrangement had actually resulted in Navy being assigned more of the McDonald's top scorers than the White squad. Looking at players who scored seven points or better in the McDonald's game, those assigned to the WBCA Navy squad included the McDonald's Game high-scorer Nirra Fields, who posted 20 points in that game; the McDonald's Game MVP Alexis Prince, who put up 15 points for the winning East team on Wednesday; Alexis Jones, who scored nine points at McDonald's; and Courtney Williams, who finished with seven points in the McDonald's game -- for a total of 51 points scored by Navy team players in Wednesday's McDonald's event.
Nicole Kornet of the Navy team and Jewell Loyd of the White team were awarded MVP trophies. (Photo by Kelly Kline/WBCA)
Meanwhile, the White team got the three future Connecticut Huskies --Tuck, who put up 18 points for the losing West team in the McDonald's Game; Jefferson, who posted 10 points in the McDonald's Game; and Stewart, the National High School Player of the Year for both the McDonald's and the WBCA All-American teams, who registered nine points in the McDonald's game. Graves, who finished with seven points in the McDonald's Game was also assigned to the White side, for a total of 44 McDonald's Game points scored by WBCA White team players.
But if the White team got fewer of the top McDonald's scorers than did the Navy, White got the lion's share of the McDonald's Game's best rebounders, beginning with Graves, who hauled down a game-high 12 boards at the McDonald's event. Of the players who pulled down more than five rebounds at the McDonald's game, the WBCA White squad also got Loyd, who finished that game with eight rebounds and Stewart, who grabbed six -- for a total of 26 McDonald's game rebounds represented on the WBCA White team.
In contrast, the Navy team drew Prince, who grabbed nine rebounds at the McDonald's Game. Full stop.
And that fact likely had a lot to do with why the White team held a 37-23 rebounding advantage by halftime, and a 54-39 edge on the boards for the game as a whole.
The other major factor in the White team's first-half dominance had been the tendency of the Navy squad to settle for three-point attempts and long jumpers that simply weren't falling. Many of those shots were jacked up hastily, contributing to Navy's low first-half shooting percentage, as well as to its rebounding deficit, since more times than not, no Navy players were in a position to rebound when the shot went up.
And that at least, was something the Navy coaches -- head coach Suzanne Oelschlegel of Irving MacArthur High School, Irving, Tex., assistant Ray Preston, of Charlotte Valley High School, Davenport, N.Y., and honorary WNBA co-captain Sophia Young of the San Antonio Silver Stars -- were able to address at the half. (The White team was guided by head coach Marcia Pinder of Dillard High School, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the WBCA National High School Coach of the Year, who was assisted on the sideline by Diane Richardson, Riverdale Baptist H.S., Ellicott City, Md., and WNBA honorary co-captain Briann January of the Indiana Fever.)
"They just told us to calm down," said Tierney Pfirman of the Navy coaches' half-time instructions. "[They told us] that we were good too, and that if [the White Team] could shoot it, then so could we."
Along with that advice, the Navy coaches also encouraged their charges to slow things down, wait for their shot, and look to get the ball inside, Pfirman and Navy teammate Kornet confirmed.
The advice to calm down and slow down paid immediate dividends, as Navy's shooting improved to 41.9 percent (13-of-31) in the second half. Navy gleaned five more points in the second half for a total of 35 in the period -- not just despite, but in part because, of taking 11 fewer field-goal attempts and looking for higher-percentage shots in the second frame. Navy also followed its coaches' instructions to look to get the ball inside. They lofted just eight three-point attempts in the second stanza, making three of them, as compared to their two-of-13 long-ball effort in the opening frame.
It didn't hurt that as Navy stepped up its defense, the White team's shooting cooled a bit, at least at the perimeter, where White netted just one-of-nine attempts (11.1 percent), as compared to its seven-for-17 long-ball shooting in the first period. But at the same time, White continued to "dance with who brung them," actually improving its overall field-goal shooting to 48 percent in the second period, up from 42.9 percent in the first, as White, too, slowed things down, cutting down their total shot attempts from 35-25, but making proportionally more of them.
The more tempered offensive approach of the Navy team in the latter period was coupled with the continued success of its quick hands on the defensive end, helping to cut the gap to 10 roughly halfway through the half. By game's end, Navy had grabbed 15 steals and forced 22 turnovers by the White team, while coughing the ball up only nine times the entire game, with six of those errors coming on White team steals.
Still, while Navy shaved a few points off White's 17-point first-half cushion, White never let the lead slip away. Late in the second half, explained Briana Stewart, the White made a concerted effort to exert more pressure on the Navy ballhandlers. And though Navy hit the boards with greater aggressiveness in the second half, battling White to a 16-17 near-standstill on the glass, White still made the most of its 54-39 rebounding advantage to maintain its lead.
As the game wound into its final minute, the score clearly out of reach for Navy, the White team attempted to set up Stewart, who won the girls' Jam Fest competition at the McDonald's Game, to become the first WBCA All-American ever to dunk in the game. Moriah Jefferson bounced the ball high off the backboard from the right elbow. But, as Stewart later explained, the pass off the backboard was rushed and a bit off to the right, as Stewart, under heavy defensive pressure from Alexis Jones who seemed determined not to allow her side to be dunked on, raced over to attempt a throw-down that just wouldn't go down. Time expired before the White Team could set up another try.
In the end, there were victories for both sides: White won the game by a final score of 74-62, and with its much-improved play in the second half, Navy was spared the ignominy of entering the record books as the lowest scoring team in the history of the WBCA All-American Game. And while for both sides, this was far from the highest scoring WBCA All-American game on record (that honor goes to the All-American teams of 2007 and 2008, in which the Red side beat the White by 98-95 and 114-79, respectively), the 2012 game narrowly escaped being the lowest scoring either, finishing with a combined total 140 points. (The fewest combined points were scored in 2006, when Red beat White, 68-61.)