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Lady Commodores thriving despite key loss

By DUSTIN KENT 
News Herald Assistant Sports Editor 

Posted Mar 6, 2018 at 6:20 PM

 

Coaches of all sports love to preach to their players the importance of overcoming obstacles and being resilient in the face of adversity. Some adversity is to be expected over the course of a season, such as injuries and heartbreaking losses, or even suspensions in some cases. Others, such as having your second-leading scorer get shot during the middle of your conference season, are a bit more difficult to take in stride.

 

Such has been the case for No. 2 Gulf Coast, which had to play the last five games of the regular season without sophomore guard Kionna Jeter, who was the victim of a shooting while at home in Spartanburg, S.C., visiting family on Feb. 3. Jeter was hit with two shots and suffered a broken shoulder, though her life was never in jeopardy and she is expected to make a full recovery. That recovery is expected to take approximately three months, according to Jeter, which means her season is over, and if the Lady Commodores are going to make a run at a third straight national title, they’ll have to do it without the services of a player who was averaging 19.8 points per game this season, including 20.1 in Panhandle Conference play.

 

The prospect of replacing such a productive player seems more challenging on paper than it has appeared to be in reality for the Lady Commodores, who have gone 5-0 without Jeter with an average margin of victory of 19 points per game. Of those five contests, only a 69-65 road victory over Chipola in a meaningless regular season finale was decided by fewer than 16 points. It’s an impressive response to a pretty big bit of adversity for Gulf Coast, though for coach Roonie Scovel, it fits with how her players have handled other setbacks this season.

 

“It’s kind of amazing,” she said. “We didn’t have (freshman post player) Astou (Gaye) to start the season, we lost Shayla

(Bennett) for four weeks with the surgery, and then of course we lose Kionna at conference time. We’ve had some nagging things, but I guess today’s kids are just resilient. They just move on to the next game and play. I’m real impressed that they didn’t fold and didn’t lose their confidence. It was the next woman up and some of those next women played very well during that stretch.”

The woman who stepped up the most in the immediate aftermath of losing Jeter was 5-foot-6 sophomore guard Janesha Green, who scored 24, 11, and 19 points in the ensuing three games after scoring just 16 points total in her previous seven Panhandle Conference outings. Green is averaging 12.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game while shooting 55.8 percent from the field and a whopping 68.8 percent from the 3-point line in the five games since Jeter went out.

 

Green wasn’t exactly the most likely candidate to take on a bigger scoring burden after posting just 2 points per game as a freshman, but she said she believed she was capable of producing at a higher level in a way she didn’t last season.

″(Jeter) was a big scorer for us, and coach Scovel was just like, ‘somebody has got to step up,’ so I stepped up and tried to take

that spot,” she said. “It feels pretty good. It’s just confidence, basically. My confidence wasn’t that good last year.”

 

Gulf Coast also got big performances from 5-10 French freshman Diéné Diané, who scored 14 points and hit 4 of 5 threes in a win over Tallahassee and added a season-high 21 points on 4 of 6 from the 3-point line in a victory over Pensacola State. Diané, who had previously scored just two points in limited action in six conference games, averaged 8.4 points on 55.6 percent shooting from the field and 52.9 percent from the 3-point line in her last five outings.

 

The elevated play of her compatriot, Gaye, has also been a big factor for the Lady Commodores. The 6-2 post player struggled to get going this season as she recovered from an offseason injury, but over the past seven games she has shown flashes of the talent that made her a coveted international recruit, averaging 11.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 53.7 percent from the field and 56.3 percent from the 3-point line.

 

Freshman post player Alexus Dye also had a strong finish to the conference season, averaging 10 points on 62.8 percent shooting from the field in her final six league games.

 

“We’ve just had different people step up,” Scovel said. “Jhileiya Dunlap has come on and had some big games. Alexus had a great game. We’ve just had different people step up and do some things for us. (Green and Diané) have had some good games. It’s been a little inconsistent, but when we’ve needed it from them, we’ve got it. I hope that will continue as we move forward and we can get something from them when we need it.”

 

While Bennett has continued her consistent ways with 20.8 points per game over the past five, the 6-2 Dunlap, who will accompany Bennett to the University of North Carolina next season, has picked up her offense dramatically. After averaging just 8.4 points through her first seven Panhandle games, she is putting in 17.4 points per game in her last five outings on 55.9 percent from the field, while adding 8.8 rebounds, two assists, and three blocked shots per game as the anchor of the GC defense.

 

Dunlap said it took her a couple of days just to process the news of Jeter being shot, but it was shortly after that when she and her teammates took it upon themselves to make sure everyone knew that the Lady Commodores weren’t going away.

 

“When everybody started hearing that (Jeter) was out, that’s when everybody thought, ‘oh, Gulf Coast is going down and not going anywhere this year,’” she said. “But we switched it around. When we lost her, we knew we would have to work 10 times harder.”

 

The results have been both impressive and unexpected, as the Lady Commodores nearly doubled their scoring margin since losing their second-best scorer. Scovel attributed it to a faster pace and a ratcheted up defense that has limited opponents to just 34 percent shooting over the past five games.

 

“We just emphasized that we have to keep doing the things that we do,” she said. “I think our transition is a little better. Janesha is probably the quickest player on our team and she’s strong, so our running game got a little more consistent. Defensively, I think our kids realized that when you lose 20 points, your defense is going to have to win you some ballgames if you can’t make up for those lost points. But I think it has been a little bit of both. I think we’ve made up for the lost points, but I also think that we turned up the defense a little bit.”

 

Gulf Coast will try to harness the momentum it finished the regular season with and take it to Ocala for the FCSAA Region VIII Tournament on March 8-10 in search of a third consecutive state title. The Lady Commodores will almost certainly get a trip to Lubbock, Tex., regardless of how well they do in Ocala for the NJCAA Tournament and a chance for another national championship as well.

 

However difficult the challenges that await them in the postseason, Bennett said she believes the way her team has handled the loss of one of its best players proves it’s tough enough to handle anything else thrown its way.

 

“I think it really shows how dedicated we are to each other and to the game,” she said. “We don’t let one bad thing bring us down as a team. We keep pushing, no matter what happens. A lot of adversity happens throughout a season, but you just have to keep playing through it all.”

 

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