Two of the nations' top 2014 "bigs" squared off when No. 2 Aja Wilson's Heathwood Hall hosted No. 6 Jatari White and Providence Day. It was an epic battle that drew over a dozen college coaches.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- You know it’s a big game when the girls play after the boys -- and it's not because of some gender equity issue.
No, when Heathwood Hall Episcopal and Providence Day played on Feb. 12, the fans were there to see two of the top six players in the the 2014 Full Court Fresh 50: No. 2 A’ja Wilson and No. 6 Jatari White, and the boys were just along for the ride.
The main event also drew the attention of dozens of college coaches who are anxiously hoping to land either top recruit. The postgame festivities looking more like a wedding reception line, as both high school coaches were greeted by prospecting college coaches such as Sylvia Hatchell, Holly Warlick, Jeff Walz, Matthew Mitchell, Kaite Meier, Itoro Coleman and twice as many assistants.
While the outcome of this non-conference game would not effect either school’s run at a state championship, there was a lot of heart and pride on the line. Early on it was evident that Providence Day (24-4) wanted to control the pace of the game, opting to set up their offense and work the ball inside to White, versus running the floor with the more experienced Heathwood Hall (18-7). What ensued was a low scoring affair that only increased the value of every shot made.
The game was tied 6-6 after the first, with both teams missing a lot of open looks. In the second, after the nerves settled, the hosting Highlanders got a few easy baskets in transition and outscored Providence Day 12-4 to take an 18-10 halftime lead - along with emotional momentum.
Heathwood continued to push ahead in the third, capitalizing on Providence Day turnovers for a 14-6 run that gave the Highlanders a comfortable double-digit lead. The Chargers responded with a fourth-quarter rally, cutting the lead to seven, but ran out of time and fell 41-32.
“We played a team that made us play in the halfcourt set which we don’t see very often, but it was good because if we go to the semifinals or finals we’ll have to play in the halfcourt set,” said Heathwood Hall coach John O’Cain. “I think we did a pretty good job. Offense isn’t going to be there every night, but defense must be there and we played a pretty good defensive game tonight.”
White led all scorers with 19 points and nine rebounds while Wilson paced Heathwood Hall with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Gadson Lefft scored 11 points and Vickie Dickerson added eight for the winners.
“I thought our kids played hard, and I thought we stayed together,” said Providence Day coach Josh Springer. “I thought in a real hostile environment we didn’t fold, we were able to cut it to seven with under a minute to go, but against a team like this you can’t fall behind by that much.”
#40 Jatari White of Providence Day boxes out #22 A'Ja Wilson of Heathwood Hall. (Photo by Kelly Kline)
As for the duel between 6-6 Wilson and 6-3 White, both players, who are friends off the court, appreciated the rare size matchup.
“I love playing against Jatari, she makes me better,” said Wilson about White. “It’s very hard to guard her, she is stronger than me.”
“She was half point guard, half shooting guard -- she did a little bit of everything,” said Jatari of A’ja’s game. “Most 6-5 tall girls can’t dribble the ball up the court, so I give her props for that and she can shoot really well. She has a really strong game.”
It was evident during the game that Jatari has greatly improved the ease and execution of her footwork, and attacked the basket with confident post moves and counters, scoring multiple times in head-to-head situations against Wilson (despite Wilson’s slight 2.5 inch height advantage). Jatari has added more upper body strength and looked very comfortable taking contact, and she’s without a doubt one of the best post players in the nation. She’s averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3.3 blocks a game, also shooting 54 percent from the field and 75 percent from the free throw line. Defensively she is a great shot blocker, and in this matchup showed the ability to defend a player of her size without getting in foul trouble (she had four in the game).
“I was really proud of how she attacked the basket tonight,” said Springer of his star player. “I didn’t think she settled --she played aggressive, I know some of her shots were blocked by A'ja, but Jatari blocked some of hers.”
White is currently being recruited by over a dozen top programs, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Duke, Tennessee, Clemson, Kentucky, Louisville, Miami, Florida, Florida State, Texas, N.C. State, Maryland, Texas and Georgia Tech.
Wilson didn’t engage White as much on offense, opting to stay outside and knock down 12- to 15-foot jump shots where her defenders where much smaller. When she did go in the paint, it was to rebound where she effectively scored on second chances. In this game, Wilson was held significantly below her season average of 28 points and 14 rebounds, mainly due to the fact that Providence Day limited transition baskets where Wilson’s size and athleticism is toughest to defend. Still it's plain to see that Wilson has a bright future at the next level and as she continues to become more accurate with her shot and her range, she will be very difficult to defend at any level.
Wilson is currently being recruited by North Carolina, South Carolina, Clemson, Connecticut, Tennessee, Baylor, Rutgers, Texas A&M and Florida State.
The biggest winner in this matchup may have been Heathwood’s Gadson Lefft, who put on a defensive performance that caught the eye of many of the college coaches in attendance. The 6-1 junior forward, who transferred to the Highlanders from Clover High School, had several big blocks, knocked down the baseline jumper and proved to be an emotional leader for the team, finishing with 11 points and five rebounds (season average is 10.8 ppg and 6.5 rpg).
“I don’t think she realizes her potential,” said O’Cain. “If we cut down the nets next month, she could be the reason why.”
This highly anticipated matchup will be a home-and-home series with Heathwood Hall traveling to Providence Day next year -- and the boys will most likely have to settle for preliminary status then too.