Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Patriots girls have no answer against upstart Falcons

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If there were such a thing as the county high school comeback team of the year, the Central High girls’ basketball team would be a strong candidate.

Tuesday night’s 60-40 road victory against rival Friendly helped the Falcons(4-6) equal the team’s combined win total over the last two years.

Central third-year coach Norris Powell is proud of his team’s progress this season and said the Falcons have not finished improving.

‘‘We’re still on an upward curve of confidence, but we haven’t peaked yet,” Powell said.

Indeed, the Falcons have come a long way over the past three years. And although the team still has not reached the .500 win percentage mark yet, the Falcons could be a pesky group come playoff time.

For the past two seasons, the team has participated in a fall league held at Northwestern High. The league featured a number of strong teams, most notably three-time defending Class 4A state champion Eleanor Roosevelt and Paint Branch, along with several AAU club teams.

During those fall leagues, the team was not as worried about winning as it was about trying bolster its fundamentals. And it appears that all of the frustrations the team endured when it had trouble maintaining possessions or getting a grip on Powell’s system have begun to subside.

Tuesday night, the Falcons had little trouble beating Friendly’s full-court press and managed to get easy looks at the basket.

The victory was the program’s first against the Patriots during Powell’s tenure. And after the game, the smiles and high fives on the Falcons’ sideline were a clear sign of how the team is starting to feel about itself.

‘‘Out of the four years that I’ve been here, this is the only year we have played together,” said Falcons’ senior Rhodesia Jones, who has attracted offers from several area colleges. ‘‘I think we are starting to get better with every game.”

For the past two seasons, Central’s best player has been junior guard Marketa Salley, who is averaging more than 20 points per game this season.

Salley, the niece of former NBA player John Salley, said she can see that her team may have finally come of age.

‘‘The first half of the season, we were losing too many close games that we were in,” said Salley, who finished 17 points against Friendly. ‘‘After we lost those games at the last second, we all made a decision to play even harder. I think we have a lot of confidence now.”

Central guard Shauntese Cowan has been an integral part of the Falcons’ attack since transferring from Archbishop Carroll (D.C.). Cowan finished the game with 13 points while Falcons’ forward Andrea Thomas shared a team-high 17 points with Salley.

And the Falcons have managed to maintain good spirits despite a huge void in the program. Central and three other county schools (Bladensburg, Laurel and Fairmont Heights) either did not field a junior varsity squad or were forced to shut down the JV team during the season.

Powell has managed to settle on a regular rotation of players despite not having anyone to bring up from junior varsity.

‘‘We just couldn’t draw enough interest in the school,” Powell said. ‘‘We have made announcements and have had assemblies trying to attract girls to play. And junior varsity is a big part in how a program is made. You have to win to build a program and get a reputation. Hopefully, we can start because this is our best record in quite some time.”

Meanwhile, Patriots’ coach Darryl Nixon was disappointed in his team’s effort after the game and had few words.

‘‘I think we came in overconfident,” Nixon said. ‘‘I don’t know what’s going to happen Friday when we play again.”

Nixon said Takia Brown, Danielle Bowman, Raven Smith and Ashley Powell all have endured injuries during the season, and that communication has been a problem for the Patriots (4-7).

‘‘We could do better,” said Friendly guard⁄forward Ayasha Lyke. ‘‘I feel we could still be a good team and we’re all still trying to go to states.”

E-mail Terron Hampton at thampton@gazette.net.