Stonewall Jackson girls' basketball coach Nsonji White had one strategy he hoped his team would stick to throughout last night's Virginia AAA Northwestern Region semifinal matchup with Hylton: putting the heat on Hylton guard Ariana Moorer. "Just get in her head," White told his team.
Mission accomplished. The Raiders held Moorer -- Hylton's dynamic guard and the Cardinal District player of the year -- to seven points (12 below her average) and hung on for a 52-37 win, clinching their first trip to the state tournament.
"We felt that so goes Ariana, so goes the team," White said. "Ariana is a steady and relentless player, so we wanted to make sure we had two people on her every time she caught the ball."
The Raiders (20-5) held Moorer scoreless for the entire first half and led 19-14 at halftime. Stonewall found its offensive touch early in the second half, as Nia Thompson scored on a layup and Jasmine Caracciolo netted a three-pointer to go up 24-14.
"We weren't going to change our defense based on the score," said Stonewall's Gwen Washington, the Cedar Run District player of the year, who scored a game-high 20 points.
Hylton (21-5) cut Stonewall's lead to 34-30 with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter on a layup by Kiara Johnson, but Thompson and Caracciolo answered again for Stonewall -- Thompson scoring after an offensive rebound and Caracciolo sinking another three-pointer to give her team a 39-30 lead.
For Stonewall Jackson, the Cedar Run regular season and tournament champion two years running, the win also indicated how far the program has come since White took over in 2004. The Raiders had just one winning season in the 13 years before White arrived and were regular fodder for most teams in the typically deeper Cardinal District.
Though the Raiders advanced to the region tournament last season, they did so by trying to outscore opponents. This season, White said he has asked his team to work harder than ever on defense. Last night, Hylton became the third opponent this postseason to score fewer than 40 points against Stonewall.
"I started this team with nothing but offense and tried to be the Phoenix Suns," White said. "Then I realized when you play a team like [two-time state champion] Forest Park, defense is what prevails."
Stonewall Jackson 52
Defensive Duty: Stonewall Jackson has outscored its postseason opponents by an average of 23.5 points per game.
Up Next: Stonewall Jackson will host No. 16 Forest Park -- the three-time defending Northwestern champion -- for the region title tomorrow at 7 p.m. Both teams will play in the state tournament, which begins next weekend.