First Posted: 1/15/2009
ST. PAULS - With the season on the line, it was time for the St. Pauls High School girls basketball team's best player, Nikita Grant, to step up like leaders are supposed to do.
And step up she did.
The junior guard came out gunning from the opening tip and scored a career-high 29 points to lead St. Pauls to a 67-36 victory Monday over West Bladen in the opening round of the girls Tri-Six Conference tournament.
“Coach has been trying to get me to be a leader all season,'' said Grant, who made four first-half 3-pointers to get her team rolling. “But I've been slacking off. But tonight, I couldn't do that to my team. I wanted us to go as far as we can go.''
The win was twice as important for St. Pauls, because it clinched a state playoff berth for the Bulldogs, 12-12, and ended the season for West Bladen.
“I told these seniors that it has been three years since we've been to the (state) playoffs,'' St. Pauls head coach Mike Ratley said. “I told them, I missed it. This will make them feel good, and it's good for the program.''
St. Pauls will now face No. 1 seed Red Springs on Wednesday on the road. The Lady Bulldogs have lost twice to the Lady Red Devils, but the team's confidence is high following Monday's victory.
“We always do good for three quarters,'' Grant said. “But we let up. This time, we're going to try and keep it up.''
Ratley is hoping for the same kind of defensive effort he received from his team on Monday.
St. Pauls held West Bladen to 18 percent shooting from the floor and forced its visitors into 33 turnovers.
“Playing good defense is always ugly,'' Ratley said. “It's never pretty to watch. But I thought that was our best defensive effort all season.
“I think these girls really wanted that fourth playoff spot.''
St. Pauls harassed West Bladen's Tashanna Banner, one of the conference's best players, into a 4-for-29 shooting, 15-point outing.
While the visitor's best player was struggling, Grant made sure the Bulldogs would not.
She came out firing, connecting on a pair of 3-pointers early in the first quarter to give St. Pauls a 6-3 lead - and they would never trail the rest of the way.
By halftime, Grant had 18 points, while West Bladen, as a team, had only 11.
“I told her when she came out of the game (in the fourth quarter), that she looked like she wanted to play basketball tonight,'' Ratley said.
After the Lady Bulldogs took a 34-11 halftime lead, the second half became a sloppy game, with both teams racking up fouls and missing shots.
In all, the two teams combined to turn the ball over 60 times, missed a total of 83 shots from the floor, 27 from the free throw line and five players fouled out.
But unlike West Bladen, St. Pauls received contributions from several sources, as 11 different players scored and 11 grabbed at least one rebound.
Shakera Dunham chipped in with nine points for the Lady Bulldogs.