Lady Lions off to fast start in district play
By Skip Leon
Teague girls basketball coach Chris Nickleberry wanted to make sure his team was preparedfor its District 20-3A season. So, the Lady Lions played a rugged non-district schedule and took it on the chin at times.
But the preparation has paid dividends. Teague defeated Elkhart on Friday night, 56-41, to improve to 3-0 in district. The Lady Lions are 9-9 overall. They were off Tuesday before heading to Buffalo this Friday for a battle of 3-0 district teams.
“We’re winning when it counts,” Nickleberry said. “We pride ourselves on putting together a pretty good preseason schedule to prepare for district.”
The race for the district championship is wide open, and Teague has tossed its hat into the ring along with a number of other teams. It’s difficult to say who the favorite is.
“Some would say Teague. I would say Buffalo,” Nickleberry said. “Some would say Frankston. Some would say Groesbeck. You just can’t go to sleep on anybody. Any week, you can lose.”
The coach knows his team will face a stiff challenge at Buffalo.
“They have a lot of chemistry,” Nickleberry said. “And they’ve been playing on the varsity since they were freshmen. They’ve just built that chemistry over the years. And they play hard.”
While winning three district games in a row is a good start, there is much more to come, Nickleberry said. Teague learned that lesson last year when they started 1-2, lost in the second round to a few teams they had beaten in the first round, wound up tied for second and won a coin flip to get the second seed in the playoffs.
“We’re off to a great start, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Nickleberry said. “We’re definitely not doing our playoff dance. We’re trying to get better. We’re trying to work and get stuff lined out.”
The Lady Lions seem to have all the pieces in place to make a title run. They’ve got tall, talented inside players in sophomore Reagan Heggins and senior Meeyah Davis. They’ve got an accurate three-point shooter in Mallory Steen. They’ve got a good backcourt with guards TK Jones, Laura Knight and Calee Payne. And they’ve got players who can supply valuable minutes off the bench, such as Ashlyn Forge, Jasmine Rice and Brooklyn Thompson.
Heggins had 17 points against Elkhart. Payne had 14 and Davis netted 11. Steen had nine points, all on three-point shots. Jones had three points and Knight had two.
The 3-0 start is important, Nickleberry said, because it allows the Lady Lions to control their destiny as the season goes on.
“I knew we were capable (of starting 3-0),” Nickleberry said of his relatively young team. “It’s a great feeling because, one thing about the playoff race, in the second half of district you want your destiny to be in your own hands. You don’t want to depend on somebody beating somebody. We’ve got to control what we can control. We can’t worry about who beat who or who plays who. We’ve got to worry about the team that’s in front of us.”
Against Elkhart, Teague jumped out to a 21-10 lead after the first quarter and coasted to the victory. Trailing 7-5 three minutes into the game, the Lady Lions went on a 14-2 run over 2 minutes, 13 seconds to take a 10-point lead late in the stanza.
Davis ignited the spurt when she muscled in an offensive rebound and was fouled. Her free throw gave Teague an 8-7 lead. After an Elkhart basket, the Lady Lions ran off 11 unanswered points, including eight in 56 seconds by Heggins.
The 6-foot sophomore made a pair of layups within 16 seconds of each other. She put in an offensive rebound and finished the streak with a steal and layup with 3:09 left in the first quarter to give her team a 16-9 lead and force Elkhart to call timeout. When the teams returned to the court, Steen buried her first of three three-pointers.
Nickleberry credited Higgins with igniting the Lady Lions.
“She kind of lit a fire the first half and we kind of followed her lead,” the coach said.
After the explosive first quarter, Teague and Elkhart played to a 10-10 draw in round two and the Lady Lions took a 31-20 lead into halftime. Nickleberry thought his team could do better, and let them know that in no uncertain terms in the locker room.
“We locked down their guards in the second half,” he said. “We just didn’t do it in the first half. The halftime speech, I guess, inspired them.”
Nickleberry said he told his team to “get in gear, in not so many words. And they responded.”
He said one reason for Teague’s lulls during the game could be because they were still on Christmas break and not in the normal routine of practicing and going to school.
“We’ve been off two and a half weeks,” Nickleberry said. “I attribute it to us being out of our routine.”
Still, the Lady Lions battled and seemed to wear down Elkhart in the second half.
“I think we did wear them down,” Nickleberry said. “We tell our kids, play for four quarters. Anybody can come out and fight, but how long can you fight? Can you play for 32 minutes, because we plan on fighting for 32 minutes.”
Moving forward, Nickleberry wants his team to improve and learn to play an entire game.
“We haven’t played a complete game, in my opinion,” he said. “We’ve played great in spurts, but we haven’t played great for four quarters. I want to see us play great, defensively, for four quarters, knock our free throws down and finish at the rim. The big three.”
Nickleberry knows the path to improvement will take time. He has a relatively young team with players stepping into larger roles on the varsity for the first time.
“We’re young,” he said. “We’ve been so senior-laden the last three or four years, we have a lot of kids we’re depending on to fill these big roles and they’re not used to it.
And we know it takes time. Every game you get better. So, we just look for growth in each player each game. We just try to build on the positive and repair the negative.”