By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
For decades CPS boys basketball teams have had a consistent presence in the state finals. But this year the girl’s teams are making a presence of their own sending three teams in two classes to the state finals to be played this weekend at Redbird Arena in downstate Normal. While the state finals are nothing new to a program like Young, North Lawndale and Morgan Park are in unchartered waters.
For Morgan Park (29-4), the victory was a milestone. The Mustangs have come close the last three years but have not been able to get over the hump. They believe they had to learn the killer instinct to be able to finish off good teams in key games.
“Our motto all season has been to step on people’s necks,” said the Mustangs Gabrielle Cooper, who had 13 points and 13 rebounds in the game.
And that is just what Cooper and her teammates did during their 74-47 demolishing of Bogan in the Class 3A Super Sectional played at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep Feb. 29. The game was never in doubt despite the Mustangs playing without their leading scorer Déjà Cage who was out with an injury. Morgan Park played Morton March 4 at Redbird Arena.
For the West Side’s North Lawndale, the Phoenix has risen to a place they have never been either. Although the boy’s team has made several trips to the state finals the girl’s program is making their maiden voyage. They defeated Johnsburg 50-41 in their Class 3A Super Sectional played in River Forest. The Phoenix hit all eight free throws in the final two minutes of the game to secure their first trip downstate.
The win for the Phoenix is bigger than just basketball. North Lawndale has the unfortunate and dubious reputation of being one of the most crime-ridden areas of the city. Their players have to deal with a lot of off the court obstacles that can make life harder. But their coach says being a part of a team helps them navigate many of those obstacles and can lead to a path of success.
“We tell our players all the time to stay focus on positive activities and hang around with like-minded individuals and you can succeed in life despite the environment you might be put in,” said Coach Corey Morgan. “Playing in this environment tonight and what we are sure to face downstate is a hostile and unfamiliar place, but by sticking together we will succeed.”
The Phoenix (18-11) were led by Kimyra McGhee’s 14 points and 10 rebounds and Jada Thorpe who added 12 points three rebounds. They faced Highland on March 4 in Normal.
The chances Young would miss the state finals for the second year in a row was looking good halfway through the third quarter. The Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings led 47-32 following a basket by Tylah Lampley with 5 minutes, 32 seconds left in the third quarter. But that is when the Lady Dolphins stepped up their defense and made one of the best comebacks in recent memory.
“My teammates really stepped up and hit some big shots and made some big plays on defense.” said senior Kiara Lewis.
Lewis scored 44 points and added 13 rebounds to lead No. 1 Young to a thrilling 76-74 overtime comeback win over No. 7 Homewood-Flossmoor at the Class 4A Mother McCauley Super Sectional. With her phenomenal individual performance, Lewis cemented her legacy as one of the best high school players to come out of the state.
“What she did out there tonight is something people will talk about years from now,” said her coach Corey Irvin. “She didn’t have a particularly great shooting night but she made big shots when her team needed them.”
Young played Fremd (Palatine) on March 4 in Normal in the Class 4A semifinals.
With all of the uncertainty surrounding CPS with the budget crisis and possible teachers strike looming, CPS officials said it is good to see the student-athletes being able to block out all of the distractions and succeed. Regional Athletic Director Cynthia Irvin said she was proud to see all three teams heading downstate. She said the three schools all represent a different geographical part of the city and it is good for girls basketball in general, said Irvin, herself a standout basketball player at Julian back in the early 90’s.