GIRLS BASKETBALL: Defensive duo big piece for Courtland
When the Courtland girls basketball team reached the Group AA, Division 4 state championship game last season, coach J.T. Nino rotated six players.
Nino employed the man-to-man defense he prefers, but the Cougars hardly ever used full-court pressure because of their lack of depth.
“We didn’t go across half-court unless we were losing,” Nino said, “which was very rare.”
But with 11 capable players on this year’s roster, Nino’s philosophy has changed.
Senior Arianna Bradley and freshman Kayla Demps have become Courtland’s defensive aces, and their ability to apply pressure may be the primary reason Courtland (25–3) has returned to the state tournament.
The Cougars will face Woodgrove at Robinson High School in Fairfax County on Saturday in the state quarterfinals.
“What is special about the situation is they know they are what make us roll,” Nino said. “That’s what makes us good. They embrace that. There are very few players I think that would embrace a huge defensive role like that.”
Bradley and Demps aren’t asked to score much. Their primary assignment is to wear down the oppositions’ ball handlers until they submit.
That was the case in Courtland’s 47–41 victory over Eastern View in the Region I semifinals last Thursday. The Cyclones held a three-point lead entering the fourth quarter, but it was evident in the final frame they had very little energy left.
After the game Nino said Bradley and Demps are “the best two on-the-ball defenders in the Battlefield District.”
“They may play the most important part to our game as a whole,” Courtland senior forward Jessica Hairston said. “That last game against Eastern View they really showed what they can do. I couldn’t slap hands with them enough to congratulate them and thank them for what they did. It was a lot of help.”
Eastern View senior point guard Shirlena Bowles was tugging her shorts and breathing heavily near the end of the game.
Cyclones coach Mike McCombs acknowledged she and her teammates were beaten down by the Cougars’ relentless pressure.
“Coach Nino always says ‘Four quarters of wearing that point guard out,’” Hairston said. “And that’s exactly what they did. They wore her out to a point where it was like, ‘I give up.’”
District coaches recognized Bradley’s defensive effort. The point guard earned first-team all-district honors despite an average of 5.5 points per game.
Bradley said it was rewarding to see that coaches look beyond the box score. She said she takes pride in her defensive abilities. She said her energy comes from playing soccer in the spring.
“With soccer it’s constantly running back and forth nonstop for 45 minutes each half,” Bradley said. “So I’m used to running.”
Bradley said opponents often show their frustrations with her pestering. They comment on her energy and ability to track them everywhere on the court.
James Monroe coach Julian Bumbrey, whose team lost to the Cougars twice this season, said Bradley is fast and physical, too.
“They’re quick and they’re in your face,” Bumbrey said of Bradley and Demps. “That’s what turns it up for the rest of the team. The ball pressure they apply allows [Janae] McNeal and Hairston to get in the passing lanes. Once they do that, they’re off to the races.”
Demps said her plan was to show off her ability to shoot 3-pointers when she joined the Cougars. But Nino quickly told her he needed her defensive abilities more.
Nino said Demps’ outside shot has suffered because of the focus on defense, but he’ll gladly accept the tradeoff.
“She spends so much energy defensively that sometimes she gets a 3-point shot off and it’s not even close,” Nino said. “But I would take 10 layups a game off of steals than making one 3-pointer. So it’s definitely a risk–reward kind of thing.”
After the games, opposing players aren’t the only ones physically drained. Bradley said she’s often spent, as well.
However, without much size, Nino had to find a formula to get the Cougars another shot at a state title.
“It’s very tiring to do,” Demps said. “But in the end, it pays off.”
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