In the rocking school dance that is the UIL basketball playoffs, the regional tournament requires a bit of a two-step from its dancers.
Step one: Win your semifinal game.
Step two: Win the regional final the next day, and boogie on to state.
For the No. 1 La Vega Lady Pirates, maintaining that narrow focus shouldn’t be a problem. Though La Vega (31-0) has won the vast majority of its games by an extremely lopsided margin, complacency hasn’t really been an issue, said head coach Amy Gillum.
“I think our defense shows it, shows our intensity,” Gillum said. “In the last couple of games, our shooting percentage hasn’t been as high, but we haven’t missed a beat with our defensive intensity. Our press, to be exact, has created a lot of havoc. I think that just shows that they’re still hungry.”
Upon first glance, La Vega’s two-headed monster of Erin DeGrate and Calveion “Juicy” Landrum are imposing enough to frighten many foes into submission. The 6-foot-4 DeGrate towers over most Class 3A posts and uses her size to her advantage, while Landrum buzzes around like a gnat at point guard, pestering teams at both ends.
However, the real testatment to La Vega’s dominance is seen in the contributions of its complementary players, like Yasmine Evans, Faith Dimerson and Kobi Gill.
“Yasmine loves it when people focus on Erin, because she’s like, ‘Just let me do my thing,’ ” Gillum said. “She’s averaging 11 points (in the playoffs). And Dimerson had 16 points and 10 rebounds last time out, and has just been very consistent. Kobi got into a little foul trouble the other night, and I tell Juicy all the time, ‘You need Kobi out there.’ She takes some of the pressure off Juicy.”
La Vega will meet Hamshire-Fannett in the regional semifinals at 8 p.m. Friday at Sam Houston State in Huntsville. Hamshire-Fannett is a surprise regional entrant, having upset district rival Hardin-Jefferson earlier this week to extend the program’s deepest playoff run in more than 30 years.
From what Gillum has seen from the Lady Horns on tape, La Vega can’t dismiss this team as mere cannon fodder.
“Watching on film, they remind me a little of Robinson,” Gillum said. “Robinson was a team that gave us fits at times, and they play that same kind of game. … I told the players about them, and Juicy said, ‘Aw, Coach Gillum, you say everybody looks good.’ But we have to be prepared. We have to do our homework.”
If La Vega wins Friday, it’ll play for a state berth Saturday against the winner of the other Region III-3A semifinal between Fairfield and Bridge City. The Lady Eagles (26-6) don’t need to use their GPS to find their way to Huntsville, as they advanced to the state tournament in 2011 and just missed another state trip last year, falling to district rival and eventual state champ Mexia in the regional final.
“That experience makes a difference, especially having Tiara (Tatum), who started at point guard as a freshman went we went to state,” Fairfield coach Stephen Heers said. “It’s big, having a floor general like that.”
In Class 2A, the Crawford Lady Pirates are also elbowing their way into position to move on to state. Deep playoff runs seem like a birthright for the girls’ athletic programs in Crawford. Not only are the Lady Pirates making their fourth straight regional tourney trip in basketball, but Crawford also won state in softball two years ago and reached the state final in volleyball last season.
“I think it’s always good when you can have that kind of success. Kids learn how to win,” Crawford coach Brandon Ely said. “Each sport pushes the next, and the girls know how far they can reach.”
Crawford (20-5) will square off with Tatum in the Class 2A Region III semifinals at 8 p.m. Friday at Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches. Tatum will try to exploit the Lady Pirates in the paint with Kayla Starling, an SFA signee. The Lady Eagles also attempt to wear teams down with fullcourt pressure, which Ely admitted his team hadn’t seen too often this year. That’ll put the impetus on Crawford guards like Ann-Marie Dunlap and Ellen Whitney to take care of the ball.
That said, Ely hopes his team’s familiarity with the regional stage is the X-factor.
“I think it helps you be comfortable, to not get too worked up,” Ely said. “It gives us confidence, and we should have confidence, because we’ve performed pretty well in big games over the past few years.”