Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
If there were fears within the Braden River High community about its girls basketball team losing momentum, they should subside now.
After watching the Pirates’ Nov. 29 game against Bradenton Christian — a small school with a solid girls basketball program that reached the Class 3A state semifinals last season — I am inclined to say the Pirates should be better than last season. Braden River won 74-66 and it was no indication how dominant it was.
After trading buckets for the first few minutes, the Pirates’ dynamic duo of 5-foot-4 sophomore O’Mariah Gordon, the 11th-best player in the nation according to ESPN, and 5-foot-8 junior Julia Rodriguez, who first-year coach Stephanie Smith said has one of the smoothest jump shots she has ever seen in a girls player, completely took over. Smith played and coached at Division-I Northern Illinois and also coached in the competitive Midwest high school scene, so she knows what she is talking about.
Smith’s penchant for aggressive defense led to steal after steal for the two guards, and they kept taking advantage offensively. Their give-and-go game was beautiful. Even though Bradenton Christian had a definitive size advantage on the Pirates, it did not matter: Braden River was too skilled. When Gordon’s buzzer-beating shot from the corner before halftime hit in order: the side of the rim, the top of the backboard and the back of the net, the Pirates led 46-29.
One side effect of playing aggressively will be an increase in fouls — to the chagrin of Smith, who said officials in Florida call a much tighter game than officials in the Midwest do. That change has been frustrating, she said.
Gordon fouled out with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, finishing with 30 points, five assists and five steals. Mela Sharma, the Pirates’ senior post presence, fouled out soon after. The game tightened after that, but was never in serious doubt. Rodriguez kept the team afloat, finishing with 26 points and 10 steals.
Smith said she likes to “loosen up a bit” around her team, and it showed. During one stretch in the third quarter, Gordon missed two transition layups in a row.
“Hey, are you going make some of those?” Smith said to her from the sideline with a smile.
Gordon stole the ball on the next possession, and sank her next layup attempt.
Smith said she does treat Gordon and Rodriguez differently from her other players in terms of discipline, because you have to push those players harder to get the most out of them.
The team is unified, Smith said. They conduct beach workouts every Saturday at 6 a.m., working on agility drills and conditioning. It is a chance for Smith to have fun with her team, because at on-court practice, she preaches aggression and passion, something she will not change, no matter how games are called in Florida.
“I am not going to dummy down what I know,” Smith said.
Her players are glad.
“Coach (Smith) knows what she is doing on defense,” Rodriguez said. “The vibes are good. It is fun to play in that style. We get more steals. We think positive. We play as a team.”
With Smith’s stuck-like-glue defense and Rodriguez and Gordon leading the offense, this Braden River team should set its goals high.