Girls’ basketball: Undefeated Eleanor Roosevelt fueled by last year’s abrupt ending


Eleanor Roosevelt's Tolu Omokore is introduced with her teammates before a 71-35 win against Largo on Feb. 27. The undefeated Raiders will face Paint Branch on Thursday in the state semifinals. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
March 12

Before every game this season, after their names are announced in the Eleanor Roosevelt starting lineup, junior Tolu Omokore and sophomore Kaila Charles meet near the sideline.

Feeling no need to hide their smiles behind masks of game-day intensity, they laugh through two quick side high-fives and backhand slaps, one quick criss-cross jump, a few retreating dance steps and an excited yell or two before heading to the bench to resume their duties as leaders of the last unbeaten team in Maryland girls’ basketball.

That handshake wasn’t around this time last season, but the Raiders were. After an undefeated regular season, Roosevelt charged through the 4A South region last year, pummeling opponents before dropping a gut-wrenching overtime loss to eventual champion North Point in the state semifinals.

The Raiders (24-0) turned in another perfect campaign this year, then barreled through the 4A South playoffs with three wins by an average of 37 points. They head to the semifinals against Paint Branch on Thursday with Charles and Omokore as propellers yet again.

Leading 2013 scorer Daria Simmons graduated, but freshman guard Octavia Wilson slid into the starting five and duplicated her scoring almost exactly: Simmons averaged 14.62 points last year, while Wilson has been scoring 14.29 per game. Junior Daijah Davis ensured stability at point guard, while classmate Allannah Baiyanna provided constant defense and reliable finishes at power forward.

So with a highly effective starting five again anchored by Charles (18 points per game) and Omokore (13), Roosevelt is hoping the difference between this year and last year — aside from the handshake — will be the ending.

Baiyanna, Charles and Omokore, the Raiders’ veteran leaders on a senior-less roster, watched the film of their state semifinal loss against North Point before Monday’s practice.

“We shed some tears,” Omokore said. “We want a redo.”

In that game, the Raiders committed 41 turnovers, a number shouted over and over after lapses in practice this season, a number hanging up in Charles’s room to remind her of the sting, a number that sickens Raiders Coach Delton Fuller and his team because they were so good it nearly didn’t doom them. Even with 41 turnovers, the Raiders forced overtime against the undefeated Eagles.

“It was heartbreaking watching the video,” Charles said. “We want another chance very badly.”

At practice Monday, the Raiders employed a conditioning drill that required them to run the length of the court back and forth for 20 minutes straight. With a minute to go, Charles called out, “Finish strong!” and proceeded to sprint the court up and back twice at full speed, trying to cross the baseline before the buzzer.

As Roosevelt practiced sets afterward, Baiyanna and Omokore seemed unwilling to let a single meaningless rebound bounce away, sometimes crashing to the floor in pursuit.

So far, the intensity and levity that defines the Raiders have pushed them to this year’s semifinals largely unchallenged. But in part because of those 41 turnovers, the Raiders have learned to challenge themselves, something they hope will help them finish the season the way Charles and Omokore start each game — with high-fives and dances moves, joyous yells and smiles.

“We work harder this year. Last year we could get away with stuff, which didn’t benefit us at all, especially in that North Point game,” Charles said. “This year, we’re pushing ourselves all the time in practice, even when the coaches aren’t watching, because we want to be better.”

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