Lots of talent in Northeast Mississippi girls basketball

– Here is today’s and Thursday’s schedule for the Lady Tigers:
Wednesday – Lady Tigers vs. Michigan Elite, 10:30 a.m.; Lady Tigers vs. Arkansas Kamikazees, 4:30 p.m.
Thursday – Lady Tigers vs. Indy Wildcats Attack Elite (rated second in the nation), 1:30 p.m.

John Wilbert
NEMS Daily Journal

It can be said, as a whole, Northeast Mississippi high school girls basketball teams had more success in the 2008-2009 season than the area’s boys teams.
Especially since six area girls teams made it to the MHSAA state semifinals in comparison to just three boys teams. The H.W. Byers Lady Lions were the only state champion in Northeast Mississippi; the Myrtle Hawks fell just short of winning the Class 1A boys title.
What is also apparent is that many of those state tournament girls teams featured very talented underclassmen leading the way. There are three girls players, however, that stood out the most among the very talented underclassmen.
New Site’s Krystal Jackson is a 5-foot-10 player that can play any position on the floor and lead her team in scoring and rebounding.
When asked if she’s among the best players he coached, Lady Royals coach Byron Sparks said, “She’s definitely right up there. If she continues to get better, she’s going to be one of the best.”
Even though she is somewhat undersized, Aspriona Gilbert is a great post player that can still grab “rebounds and score against people bigger than her,” said her AAU coach Nathan Hodum.
Finally, Jazmine Spears, the youngest of the three, is a double-double waiting to happen, as evidenced by her three straight 20-rebound games for New Albany in the MHSAA North Mississippi tournament.
“One of the marks of a good player is consistency, and she is consistent night in and night out with points and rebounds,” Lady Bulldogs coach John Stroud said about his eighth-grader this past season.
Those three are playing on a 15-and-under AAU team this summer that is loaded with talent. The Northeast Mississippi Lady Tigers are 27-4 this year when they begin play today in the AAU Division I National Championship Tournament in Little Rock, Ark.

Here is a closer look at Jackson, Gilbert and Spears:

New Site’s multi-purpose threat
New Site’s leading scorer and rebounder this past season as a sophomore, Jackson helped lead her team to the state semifinals in her first season at New Site. She had transferred to New Site after her freshman year at Booneville.
“She just kind of came in and made us complete,” Sparks said, “because I had several kids who could the shoot ball really well. She could drive and kick out to kids who could shoot.
“She could create for other players. She’s unselfish; she just wants to win.”
Jackson scored 15.7 points per game last season, including dropping 30 in the state semifinals against Kemper County. She also averaged six rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.8 steals each game.
“The thing that jumped out with me is her defensive ability,” said Hodum, who is coaching the Lady Tigers AAU team. “We have her play at the top of our press, and she gets her hands on 75 percent of the balls in terms of deflections.”
Says Jackson, who hasn’t turned 16 yet, “That’s one of my favorite things is to be on top of the press because of my height and length.”
When asked if she feels any pressure to carry her high school team – not like she always has to considering the talent New Site has – she said, “I try not to put any pressure on me. I just go out there and do what I do.”
Sparks said he has received some letters from college coaches and recruiters expressing interest in Jackson. However, it will be her junior season, says Sparks, that will be “a big one” in her recruitment.
“We hope she hasn’t peaked,” Sparks said. “I think with her work ethic she’s going to get better. She works too hard at it.
“We hope she gets better everyday and her best days are ahead of her.”

Myrtle’s ‘Baby Shaq’
The Lady Hawks made it to the state semifinals this year, and their “Baby Shaq” played a huge role.
Aspriona Gilbert is a 5-foot-11 1/2 post player that averaged 19.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.1 blocks and 1.8 steals as a 14-year-old freshman this season.
“Her post presence is really good,” Myrtle coach Chris Greer said. “She really opens things up.
“She’s not selfish. She’s got the best hands I’ve ever coached.”
Unfortunately, Gilbert will not be able to play in the AAU National Tournament due to recent knee surgery. Her high school coach, though, expects her to be able to play most of next season.
Both player and coach are in agreement that she needs to improve on her rebounding and defense.
With that being understood, Greer says there’s a couple of colleges showing early interest in Gilbert.
“She’s got some letters from schools,” Greer said.

New Albany’s young phenom
Gilbert’s friend, Jazmine Spears, has made an immediate impact on the varsity level … as an eighth grader.
It’s hard to believe that the 5-foot-11 New Albany player scoring the 15.7 points and grabbing the 11.9 rebounds per game is just in the eighth grade.
“For her to be as young as she is and going into the ninth grade, she really is a dominant player,” Gilbert said. “She’s really hard to guard one-on-one.”
As a former NBA player and college coach, New Albany girls coach John Stroud said Spears is “probably the best I’ve seen at that age playing basketball.
“She’s so fundamentally sound in all areas that you can’t coach, like moving without the ball, good hand-eye coordination. She just has a natural feel for the game.
“If she keeps a good attitude, she can go as far as she wants to go.”
But if she doesn’t grow anymore, Stroud said Spears will have to develop an outside game with a reliable perimeter jump shot if she wants to play Division I college basketball.
“She is really far ahead of most boys and girls at this age,” Stroud said. “She has to continue to get better.
“It would be great if she grows some more because she would have to play out on the floor if she doesn’t.”
So far, the Southern Mississippi coach has called her, said Spears.

Not to be overlooked
There are other good young high school players in Northeast Mississippi, and several of them are playing for the Lady Tigers 15-and-under AAU team, which only has three players who are 15-years-old.
Here are Hodum’s thoughts on some of his other players:
– Bryana Davis, Pine Grove: “She’s just going to be a ninth grader. She’s going to be really good. They are going to expect her to score 20-some points a game.”
– Katie Garvin, Kossuth: “She’s an unbelievable shooter.”
– Shunquest Howell, Ripley: “She’s going to be Ripley’s best player.”
– Kebrina Lucas, New Albany: “She’s one of the best guards I’ve seen play this year.”
Another talented point guard on that AAU team is Myrtle’s Halle Knowles, who happens to be Spears’ cousin.
“She’s really good on defense,” Greer said of his guard. “She impacts the game defensively like Aspriona Gilbert does offensively.”
Andrea Lewis (North Pontotoc) and Odyssey Mcgaha (Kossuth) have contributed solid minutes to a team that has lost only once when every player had been present.
And when discussing talented freshmen in the Daily Journal’s circulation area, you of course can’t forget to mention Quinndella Ford (Okolona) and Tia Coleman (Saltillo). The two are not playing for the Lady Tigers this summer, but they did average 23.4 and 17.6 points per game this winter, respectively.
If you want to go a little outside the Journal’s circulation area, watch out for soon-to-be sophomore center Rachel Hollivay of Caledonia. ESPNU had her listed among the top 50 players in the Class of 2012.

John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal

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