NEW ORLEANS – In true Big Easy fashion,where the Final Four festivities kicked off last night with a Mardi Gras-style parade complete with floats and shouts of “Throw me something, Mister” (or, in this case, “Miss”), the WBCA All-Americans eschewed the traditional red-and-blue uniforms for a purple-and-black motif with numbers and lettering in a neon-yellow-green hue never seen in nature.
Though the Black squad led for most of the way, ultimately prevailing, 74-70, this showcase was a much more evenly balanced contest than the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago earlier this week. The WBCA forgoes the artificial geographic divisions of teams (North-South, East-West) so often employed in such all-star outings in favor of balancing the two teams as much as possible, and at least this time around, produced a far more entertaining event.
The Black Team, coached by Scott DeJong of Ankeny High School (Iowa) and featuring the starting five of Mercedes Russell (Springfield H.S., Ore. -- Tennessee), Kendall Cooper (St. Anthony H.S., Carson, Calif. -- Duke), Kaela Davis (Buford H.S., Ga. -- Georgia Tech), Alexis Brown (North Gwinnett H.S., Suwanee, Ga. -- Maryland), and Linnae Harper (Whitney Young H.S., Chicago -- Kentucky) drew first blood on a short jumper by Cooper on a dish from Davis. But the Purple Team’s Saniya Chong (Ossining H.S., N.Y. -- UConn) took a feed from Diamond DeShields (Norcross H.S., Ga. -- North Carolina) less than 30 seconds later, and answered with a layup at the other end. Cooper and Chong again traded a jumper for a layup, and then Davis netted a jumper to give the Black a lead it would hold onto for most of the remainder of the game.
At several points, it looked like the Black would run away with the game, swelling the lead to six points roughly four minutes into the contest on a jumper by Harper and to a first-half peak of nine points (36-27) on a Davis layup off an assist from Brown at the 6:43 mark. But each time the Black seemed on the cusp of establishing a decisive separation, the Purple Team, coached by WBCA National High School Coach of the Year Curtis Ekmark (St. Mary’s Catholic H.S., Phoenix, Ariz.) with a starting five rounded out by Jessica Jackson (Jacksonville H.S., Ark -- Arkansas), Stephanie Mavunga (Brownsburg H.S., Indianapolis -- North Carolina) and Jessica Washington (Jenks H.S., Tulsa, Okla. -- North Carolina), would come up with a big play, spurring a rally to pull themselves back into contention. Thus, for example, DeShields' layup (assist by Chong) hot on the heels of a Chong three-pointer, made it a one-point ballgame (15-14) at the 15:23 mark shortly after the Black Team had swelled its edge to six. Nia Coffey (Hopkins H.S., Minneapolis, Minn. -- Northwestern), who came off the bench to take MVP honors for the Purple Team, dropped in a jumper, followed by a free throw (one of a pair) by Purple Team sub Taya Reimer (Hamilton Southeastern H.S., Indianapolis -- Notre Dame) and another penalty shot, again one out of two, by Coffey, to shave the Black lead to five (36-31), just when it had looked like the Black had been primed to pull away by double digits with 3:40 to go in the opening half.
By the intermission, the Purple Team, spearheaded by Coffey and fellow Purple bench player Erica McCall (Ridgeview H.S., Bakersfield, Calif. –- Stanford), had evaporated all put two points of the Black advantage, sending the two teams to the break with Black clinging to a 44-42 edge.
Kaela Davis and Black Team sub Kelsey Plum (La Jolla Country Day, La Jolla, Calif. –- Washington) were both already in double-digits by the half with 10 points apiece. No Purple player had passed the double-digit scoring threshold, though three players -– Chong, Coffey and McCall -– were tied at seven apiece. But it was clear that rebounding was keeping the Purple Team in the game, as by halftime, Purple held a 31-26 advantage on the boards and a 13-7 edge on the offensive glass, which in turn had led to 15 second-chance points for the Purple, to just eight for the Black. Purple also had its transition game going, with a 14-6 edge in fast-break points.
It’s difficult to know how much to make of turnover rates in a showcase game such as this one, where teams of often unfamiliar players are thrown together with very little time for practice, but turnovers -– or more precisely, the ability to capitalize on the opponent’s ball-handling miscues -– were similarly fueling the Black, who held a 15-8 advantage in points off Purple turnovers (12), while Black, themselves, coughed the ball up just eight times in the opening stanza.
The second period proceeded much as the first had, with the Black Team pulling out to single-digit leads, typically of four-to-eight points, while the Purple Team gave chase. At one point, just two-and-a-half minutes into the second half, Purple briefly captured the lead (49-48) on a Coffey jumper (assist by Jackson), which followed closely on the heels of a Jackson trey off a feed from Washington. But just as quickly, the Purple Team gave the lead back, as Coffey fouled Black sub Tyler Scaife (Hall H.S., Little Rock, Ark. –- Rutgers), who made one of the pair and Plum followed that up in short order with a jumper (assist by Brown) and a breakaway layup off a steal and assist from Oderah Chidom (Bishop O’Dowd H.S., Oakland, Calif. –- Duke).
As the game neared the midway point of the second half, Black pulled away by double digits (62-51) on a Davis three-pointer but Coffey once again answered the call, taking a dish from Lindsay Allen (St. John’s College H.S., Mowie, Md. -- Notre Dame) and draining a three-pointer to keep the Purple Team in contention. From there, the two sides traded baskets (and fouls) until, with the Black up by nine, Purple put together a 7-0 run ignited by a Washington three-pointer (Chong assist) at the 5:23 mark and capped by an Allen layup to pull within two (69-67) with 3:54 left to play.
Kaela Davis, who finished with a game-high (tie) 17 points to go with four boards, an assist and a steal (but four turnovers), proved pivotal for the Black Team at that juncture, netting a back-to-back jumper and layup that gave Black six points worth of breathing room (73-67) as the game entered its final three minutes. Still, the Purple Team would not go away, as Jackson took a feed from Coffey and dropped in a layup, then converted the traditional three-point play at the line after being fouled by Cooper to make the score 73-70 with 1:51 to go.
But both teams went cold from there, with Cooper responsible for the only point down the stretch when she netted the front half of a pair from the foul line. Though Purple continued to hang onto its edge on the backborads, finishing with a 50-41 rebounding advantage and a 23-10 edge on the offensive glass, Black held on for the 74-70 win.
Beth Bass, chief executive officer of the WBCA, told Full Court that she came away from the game with a strong sense that “we’ve got a great future. That’s evident. … I think that although our young athletes are getting more athletic, … I wish they were getting a little bit more fundamental. But … they’re getting so much more athletic.”
Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever), who played in the first girls’ high school All-American game and served as honorary captain of this year’s Purple Team, said she addressed that issue of sound fundamentals with her players. “A lot of people think that you just have to keep playing and playing and playing to get better ... We talked about the whole skill development,” said Catchings, “and working on your skills [so] that you can get better.”
Bass also noted the inspiration provided by the WBCA’s collaboration with the NCAA to allow the WBCA High School All-American Game to be played on the same floor that will host tomorrow’s Final Four: “I think that being able to play … on the championship floor for the Final Four -– that’s an image that you just can’t create except for those kids to experience that… So I think that’s pretty cool -- [they] really could pretend, ‘Wow, this could be me next year as a [college] freshman!’ And that’s what we try to do in the WBCA -– grow the sport and grow the game.”
Both of the game’s MVP honorees came off the bench for their respective teams. Scaife, who matched Davis for the game high with 17 points of her own on eight-of-14 (57.1 percent) field-goal shooting, plus four rebounds and two assists to just two turnovers, took MVP honors for the winning side.
Plum finished with 14 points and two assists (but three turnovers) for the Black Team, while Chidom led all players in rebounding, with eight boards to go with six points, three swats and a game-high seven steals, for Team Black.
The MVP award “means a lot to me, because we had a lot of great players on the team,” said Scaife, who described her All-American experience as “a week, a week-and-a-half, to just relax and have fun and enjoy yourself. It’s your last few games being a high school player. … And the areas too –- Chicago and New Orleans -– are great places to have events like this.”
Scaife credited her Black teammates for doing “a great job of finding me and getting me open” and said her shot “just fell” on this day. “It means a lot to know that all of my hard work is starting to pay off a little bit,” she added.
Scaife, who also played for the winning West team in the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago earlier this week, allowed that the score in this game might have been closer because “we switched a few players – we didn’t have our exact same team,” but also said she felt that “the Purple Team … played harder in this game. Last game, I don’t think they played as hard. But we still got the win, so I’m happy.”
Another difference Scaife didn’t mention: The WBCA’s Purple Team had Jessica Jackson, who didn’t make the McDonald’s roster, but certainly showed in this game why she deserved to be an All-American. Jackson, who actually led the Purple in both scoring (15 points) and rebounding (seven, tied with Purple’s Mavunga who also had seven boards but had just one point), was unquestionably playing at full speed in this game. Jackson also swatted down two blocked shots, as did Mavunga and DeShields.
“It was good,” said Jackson of the experience of playing in the WBCA All-American Game. “You get this experience once, because you’re only a senior once in high school."
Despite her impressive performance, Purple Team MVP honors went not to Jackson, however, but to Coffey, who finished with 12 points, on five of nine from the field (55.6 percent) and one of three from the arc, plus three rebounds, an assist and a steal, and whose scoring came at critical moments in the game.
Mercedes Russell, who played in both games and was honored as John Wooden Most Outstanding Player in the McDonald’s game after leading the West to victory with a 16-point, 12-rebound double-double, had a tougher time today: Russell was held scoreless on 0-for-3 shooting from the field. But the 6-5 post found other ways to contribute, pulling down seven rebounds, handing out two assists to just one turnover, grabbing a steal and batting down two blocks. She, too, puts this week’s All-American appearances “at the top” of her list of personal high school experiences. “Just because of the fun, you know, of traveling somewhere and playing with, like, the best players in the nation, and … building a bond with them -– getting to hang out with them for a couple of days.“
In an interesting twist, with so many of the perennial favorites missing in action from the Final Four this year, only three of the high school All-Americans – Connecticut-bound Chong, and Allen and Reimer, both of whom are slated to attend Notre Dame next season -- are headed to teams still playing in the tournament who could come out to cheer them on in the All-American game.
But that didn’t leave the high school standouts lacking for support. Though the WBCA did not release official attendance figures for the game, roughly half of the lower bowl of the New Orleans Arena, which sits right next door to the Super Dome and seats 18,500 for New Orleans Hornets NBA games, was filled with an assortment of coaches in town for the annual WBCA convention, college and high school players and fans of the game from around the country who expressed their appreciation of the All-Americans loudly and often. Soon-to-be (Washington) Husky Kelsey Plum spotted one fan sporting her future team’s jersey and shared a moment’s interaction.
Seated at center court were roughly half of this year’s newly named WBCA College All-Americans, including Elena Delle Donne (Delaware), Baylor’s Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims, Chiney Ogwumike (Stanford) and Alyssa Thomas (Maryland), who also seemed very much into the action on the court.
Bass was impressed that the College All-Americans had stayed for the game, which she said reflected the continuation of the spirit of giving back to the game that has long characterized women’s basketball.
Karlie Samuelson, who describes herself as “super excited” about joining older sister Bonnie at Stanford, a school with plenty of experience with sister acts, next season, was among those disappointed not to see her future team in this year’s Final Four.
“I was hoping [Stanford would be here],” said Samuelson, “because my whole family was going to come see Bonnie, but, I mean, it is what it is.” As it turned out, with Stanford out of the picture, Bonnie stayed back on campus and only Samuelson’s father accompanied her to New Orleans, but she at least had Chiney Ogwumike on hand to cheer her on from the stands.
“She came for the college All-America announcement,” said Samuelson, who was delighted her future teammate stayed to watch the high school game.
“It’s an honor. I love it. It’s crazy feeling,” said Samuelson, another WBCA All American who didn’t make the McDonald’s roster, of being in New Orleans as a WBCA All-American. The highlight of the experience for her has been “meeting all the girls -– they’re awesome!”
That, and meeting Catchings and Swin Cash (Chicago Sky), who served as honorary captain of the Black team. “That was also awesome!” said Samuelson who posted just two points but had four rebounds, an assist and a steal for the Purple Team.
Scaife, who like most of her All-American teammates will stay for tomorrow’s national semifinal but must head back to school on Monday before the championship game, also cited the opportunity to interact with Catchings and Cash as one of the highlights of her All-American experience. “Growing up, I used to watch them a lot on TV,” said Scaife. “I love Tamika Catchings. I love Swin Cash. It’s been tough for Tamika to win those championships –- it was so hard, but she ended up winning it. And it was just great for us to be able to interact with them and for them to have a time to just give us some advice and knowledge of the game and stuff like that.”
Catchings, who was equally thrilled about having the opportunity to spend time with young players who will be the future of the game, but nonetheless has no plans to follow up her playing career with coaching (though she might like to become a GM), made a distinct impression. “The best piece of advice I got,” said Scaife, “was probably to just, like, stay focused and stay humble, because any time anything can happen to you, whether it be a freak accident on the court or –- anything could happen. Your grades don’t go good or something. She just told us to stay focused and stay humble.”
Scaife, who said she was looking forward both to the challenge of all she would have to learn to take her game to the next level as a freshman –- as well as to the opportunity of playing alongside Bashaara Graves in the Tennessee frontcourt next season, was unaware that the college All-Americans had been watching the high schoolers play until after the game was over, but was thrilled when she found out. “That means a lot,” she said, “because, you know, we all look up to a lot of those players over there. … We’re always watching them, but for them to sit back and take a chance and watch us -– it means a lot.”
As for the eighth-grader or high school freshman out there who might be dreaming of someday becoming an All American, Scaife, who cites her father Tracy Scaife as the greatest inspiration to her in her career to this point, had this advice: “Just stay humble, continue to work hard and just stay focused and don’t get sidetracked. Just keep their circle real small. … It will all pay off for them in the end –- and if it doesn’t, … there’s always college and JUCOs and stuff like that to get them there.” She also recommends that players “just go out there and try to have fun,” rather than putting a great deal of pressure on themselves to achieve. “If you let the game come to you, it’s a lot more easy than always stressing about how hard you have to play and stuff like that.”