Denison head coach Rod Been knew that his young Lady Yellow Jacket team was going to be good, and soon. Perhaps not quite this soon.
Been’s Sherman counterpart, David Upton, took over a team this fall with a more veteran lineup, and the Lady Bearcats also have been on the rise.
Tonight’s clash of archrivals at Denison High School is always big because of bragging rights, but this time more is at stake. For the first time in several years, both teams are in the thick of the district playoff chase.
“Both of us were in such a difficult situation last year in that district down (U.S. Highway) 75,” Been said. “I think for both our programs it was refreshing to head west in a new district where our girls can walk into a new gym where they hadn’t been beaten before. It’s been good for both our programs.”
It’ll be a contrast in styles for sure. While Sherman plays man-to-man defense for the most part, Denison plays zone. While Denison plays half-court defense, Sherman will press some. And the Lady Jackets rely on a talented sophomore for the bulk of their scoring, while Sherman has a seasoned senior guard-post tandem that hits teams inside and outside.
Upton, who arrived in Sherman over the summer, will be coaching against Denison for the first time.
“I know this is a big rivalry and it’s important to both schools, from the standpoint of both schools being so close to each other,” Upton said. “I attended the football game and that gave me a little indication of how big this rivalry is, but on the basketball side it’ll be the first time for me to see what it’s like and see how everybody treats the basketball game.”
Last year’s 36-31 home victory against Sherman was Denison’s only district victory and was merely step one toward the Lady Jackets returning to competitiveness, Been felt.
“We were still trying to find our way last year,” he said. “We had beaten Sherman the year before, which I think was the first time in a decade, and I felt like we made some strides in evening ourselves up with them.”
But Been’s team has taken several giant steps forward from that point. The sudden explosion of success has been a pleasant surprise for Been, who has watched his youthful charges surge toward a possible playoff berth.
“If you go back to volleyball, and they were successful this year, I think we’ve known this was coming,” Been said. “We’ve been planning and building our athletic department over here, so we’ve known we’ve got some good classes stacked up.”
A big reason has been the play of Lady Jacket sophomore Zya Nugent, who scored 38 points and grabbed nine rebounds in last Friday’s 55-34 win against Denton Braswell.
“If you look at last year, she improved her numbers per game in district by about eight points, in a district as tough as that was,” Been said. “I knew she could play. She plays for a great AAU program in the summer, so she’s played some good basketball. She’s a great offensive player and defends well and rebounds well. She’s our leader and teams have to figure out to get her stopped, and that’s not easy.”
Nugent represents a problem for Sherman, but what represents a problem for Denison is Lady Cat 6-foot-2 senior Jahmaria Tavie, who averages right around a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Tavie, known as JJ, had 14 points and 16 boards against Old High.
Surrounding Tavie is a collection of quick guards, led by senior point guard Kristen Gittens, who led the Lady Cats with 15 points on Tuesday, including a 7-of-8 performance at the free throw line and a 4-of-4 job in the final minute.
“We don’t have an answer for (Tavie),” Been said. “Some people make the mistake of thinking they can pressure Sherman, but the guards handle the pressure well and they have a tendency to be able to find JJ in the midst of some chaotic play. They know where she’s at and they do a fantastic job of finding her, and she can finish on that right side.”
Sherman’s Alaura Andrews and Alyssa Rushing played well against Old High defensively and one or both will probably be counted on to slow down Nugent if possible.
The Lady Jackets (15-8, 3-2) suffered their first decisive district loss on Tuesday, losing at Denton Ryan, 60-42. Their only other setback was a four-point loss at home to Wichita Falls Rider, which is tied with Ryan atop the circuit at 5-0 headed into tonight’s first-place showdown at Rider.
“We’ve become Ryan fans,” Been said. “We’ve got a whole lot of basketball left to play and we think we might have a shot at second place if Ryan takes care of business.”
Meanwhile, Tuesday’s 46-39 home win against Wichita Falls keeps Sherman (11-13, 2-3) in what is shaping up to be a three-way race for the third and fourth playoff seeds. Denison remains in third place and the Lady Cats, who’ve already equaled the combined win total of their two previous seasons, are tied for fourth with Denton High.
Been feels the Lady Jackets are on solid footing in any tiebreaker scenario as his team beat Denton on the road the first time around, while Sherman lost in overtime to the Lady Broncos at home. However, the Lady Jackets have a 4-2 disparity in road vs. home games in the second leg of the 5-5A slate.
“We’ve got to go to Wichita Falls, to Rider and to Braswell (in the second half of district) as well as to Sherman,” Been said. “It’s going to be interesting in the second half, those four games.”
Upton’s goal is to get Sherman to .500 at the end of the first half, setting up a run for the second half.
“Athlete for athlete, I think we’re just as quick (as Denison),” Upton said. “It’s just a matter of making sure we stay in front and not make mistakes. Just make them take tough shots.”