When Northern Nash girls’ basketball coach Grover Battle calls a timeout, he gathers his team for a huddle and one simple question: What defense should we run?
In the past, it was press.
The answer always was press.
But now, when he asks the question it’s still a unanimous answer. It’s sometimes press.
It’s usually correct.
“They understand what they need to do,” Battle said. “Sometimes, I don’t have to say very much.
“They are coaches on the floor because they understand what the other team is trying to do to us.”
Northern Nash (17-0, 7-0 Big East) is far from the one-trick pony defense it had been in the past. Sure, the Knights still can rely on the press – as evident by a first-quarter shutout against Southern Nash earlier this week.
But it’s not all they have.
“They think they have our press beaten, but then we line up a different way and their faces just say, ‘Wow,’” senior guard Shakyia Mercer said.
From press to zone to man to trap, Northern Nash has just a wide collection of defenses so that, instead of wearing teams down physically, the Knights are dominating teams mentally.
“The versatility on the defensive end is really good because teams can’t keep up with what we are going to throw at them next,” Mercer said. “... They don’t know what to expect.”
What makes Northern Nash different this year from years past, besides the sheer number of defensive formations, is that the Knights always know what to expect.
Mercer, Khadijrah Richardson, Quinesha Lynch, Deja Lewis and Jordan Oldham – all seniors – have been playing together since middle school.
Camille Branch and Alexus Hill, both multi-sport athletes, joined later and made an ultra-talented, ultra-experienced rotation.
Six seniors, one junior and a sophomore make up the Knights’ core 8-man rotation. It’s what allows all of those special defensive plays and elaborate schemes.
“Where one of us lacks, there’s always somebody there to back us up,” Lewis said.
Suzie Sykes, another two-sport athlete, makes up the 8-man group that connects and bonds beyond the court.
Sometimes they’ll meet up at the Pit Stop for ice cream or just hang out after school. Of course, sleepovers still are plentiful. It’s what makes this group special, at least in their own eyes.
“It’s one of the reasons I love playing for this team,” Oldham said. “I don’t think there’s another group out there that is as bonded as we are. It’s so special.”
Undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the 3-A by MaxPreps, Northern Nash has proved that this group is special.
The core group of Knights – the seniors – went through growing pains early. Most of them have been playing varsity basketball since they were freshmen.
They enjoyed success during their sophomore seasons, making it to the regional tournament, but junior year left a bad taste.
Northern Nash lost just four times all season. All four were to rival Rocky Mount High.
The Knights already have beaten the Gryphons twice this year, with a third game set for Feb. 8 – the season finale next Friday.
The Knights’ most recent victory against Rocky Mount High was a 13-point win at home, when the Gryphons were held to their third-lowest point total of the season.
The Knights have done that to a lot of teams.
Northern Nash allows fewer than 33 points per game.
“I’ve always believed that defense is going to win you the big games,” Battle said. “Of course, you have to score on offense, but I also know that if nothing else works, you can shoot the ball bad every night, but if you play defense, it’s going to keep you in the game.”
Through middle school, high school and even AAU and travel basketball, this group of Knights always has played together.
That familiarity has blossomed into one of the better defenses in the state, and the fifth-highest rated team regardless of class.
A lot has changed for the team during the past five years.
They’ve grown physical and mentally, allowing Battle to manipulate his defenses like a puppet master.
There’s one thing that never has changed.
It’s what makes the Knights so good, and it’s the root of their defense.
“The one thing that sets this group apart is they play awful hard. They play awful hard,” Battle said, fighting back tears. “Any coach would appreciate how well they play, how hard they play.”
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org