Defense does it

Tenacious Bears could be bound for something special

Posted: Friday, January 01, 2010

The girls' basketball season is barely five games old for Juneau-Douglas, but the last team of the past decade and the first team of the new decade already has the look of something special in the making.

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

How's that, you ask (for the sake of this column)?

Because these girls do what great teams do - they share the rock, and they play defense. And they play it very, very well.

To merely say they play it well may, in fact, be an understatement. They're relentless; in your face and space - in your shorts, practically - from the moment the ball is sent inbound until the second their coach mercifully calls off the dogs.

But when they have their barking orders to attack, there is a constant sense of urgency and chaos for 94 feet. Hands are flying and deflections are going every which way - usually the other way for points.

"If you notice, even our starting lineup spots are earned on defense. We put a high value on it in practice, and a high value on who starts the game," coach Lesslie Knight said of her defensive philosophy. "I think you always want to come out and attack, and it's been very effective for us so they know they can earn playing time based on their defense."

This team has good size in the front court and what its back court lacks in height, it makes up for in speed and flat out ruthless aggression.

Junior guard Karli Brakes - all 5-foot-4 (maybe) of her - might not look like much but when the whistle blows, she's tenacious; like a pit bull after its favorite tennis ball. Someone else may have deflected it, but Brakes is most often the one who comes up with the ball, heading the other way with a full head of steam.

It's ferocious, but it's mostly been a controlled fury thus far, paired best with senior guard Mahlet Tingley's quick hands and smooth jumper in the back court. This double-time duo has some serious giddy-up.

And speed, or giddy-up, kills.

"Karli Brakes is probably - Karli and Mahlet both are pests," coach Lesslie Knight said lovingly of her starting back court, which averaged 3.67 and 2.33 steals during the Capital City Classic, respectively. "They're going to pester, pester, pester, and they will wear down any point guard there is. Most teams get very frustrated and by the fourth quarter, their point guards have had it."

Junior forward Sarah Tarver is imposing, long legs propelling her into passing lanes where her long arms are constantly intercepting the orange. And she's not afraid to put it on the floor and either spot a teammate for an easy lay-up or take it to the cup off the bounce herself, which is something you don't see nearly enough girls her size do at this level.

"If you notice the athleticism of Tarver, she has some serious hops and some length," Knight said of her starting forward, who also averaged 3.67 steals during the Classic. "She's a huge threat inside, and you can bring her out on any press."

Senior forward Annette Highley, who picked two pockets a game during the Classic, is all over the floor, diving after loose balls and scrapping for rebounds. She's certainly not afraid to mixit up.

And speaking of mixing it up, junior Taylor Larson, the tourney MVP after averaging 14.7 points, 4.67 rebounds and 2.33 steals, may not be the tallest post player you've ever seen, but she knows how to outmuscle others down low, get her shot up, get rebounds and get steals.

The Bears have depth, too, and tons of it. Knight regularly subs five players for five players, usually midway through each quarter as the lead balloons.

And they don't lose much (actually, the leads so far have only grown). They get even bigger in the post with juniors Hannah Swofford and Maria Weyhrauch, both of whom stand 6-foot-plus and could be a devastating high-low combination if they really work at it.

Freshman small forward Esra Siddeek, who put up nearly seven points a game this week, has the look of a very good player in these infant stages of her prep career. Knight said before the season that Siddeek made the varsity roster because of her ability to knock down shots, and she wasn't kidding.

Siddeek has a nice stroke, and also has the size and, though young, basketball savvy to be another good defender on the wing.

"Annette, Olivia Henderson and Emily Johnson are used to shut down scorers and the best offensive players on other teams," Knight said. "They all do a really good job of containment, and blocking out. So we tend to put those three on the best players on other teams. In Emily's and Annette's case, they can guard inside people or outside people. It depends on the situation. And we're working with Taylor and Hannah on their mobility, and I think they're improving with each game."

The best part (or worse for opposing teams)?

This bunch of Bears isn't even playing with a full deck yet. The afformentioned Johnson - who accepted an offer to play for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks thanks largely because of her ability to defend - and senior Brittany Fenumiai both are currently rehabbing knee injuries and have yet to grace the court.

It's never a safe bet to assume they'll be 100 percent upon their return or even this season, but if they're close, this team could go from being really good to being scary good.

If they keep working and improving - and defending - the Capital City Classic likely won't be the only tournament they win this year.

And that would be something special.

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