Next challenge semifinals for U-High, Albany West St. John

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND University girls basketball coach Bonita Johnson encourages her team in a Class 2A semifinal against John Curtis last season. The teams will match up again this season in a semifinal game at 4:30 p.m. Thursday. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND University girls basketball coach Bonita Johnson encourages her team in a Class 2A semifinal against John Curtis last season. The teams will match up again this season in a semifinal game at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

Next challenge semifinals for U-High, Albany West St. John

University High, Albany and West St. John all held
No. 1 rankings in their respective classifications throughout the regular season.

Now that triumvirate would like to prove they’ve got staying power until the finish line.

Top-seeded University (31-6) opens play in the first of three games today in The Advocate/LHSAA Top 28 Southeast Regional semifinal at 4:30 p.m. against reigning Class 2A state champion and fourth-seeded John Curtis at Southeastern Louisiana’s University Center in Hammond.

“The playoffs have been a challenge because you just don’t know,” U-High coach Bonita Johnson said. “If you don’t play hard and give your all on any given night, anybody can beat anybody. You have to be prepared to play hard every night.”

Top-seeded West St. John
(30-1) of Edgard is back in the Class 1A semifinals for the second straight year and faces fourth-seeded Central Catholic of Morgan City (24-7) at 6:15 p.m.

“We’re playing pretty good defense right now,” West St. John coach Lester Smith said. “We’ve always been able to score because we put pressure on people early in the game and go from there.”

No. 1 Albany (26-8) has its sights set on a sixth state championship, but the Hornets are keenly aware of the test
No. 5 Rayville (24-5) presents in Class 3A action at 8 p.m.

“If they stay focused and mentally tough throughout the game, I don’t see any reason why we can’t pull it out in the end,” Albany coach Justin Adams said.

“I don’t expect this one to be a very large margin of victory like the first three (playoff) games because it can definitely go either way.”

JOHN CURTIS VS. UNIVERSITY:
U-High is back in the semifinals for the second straight year and faces a familiar opponent in John Curtis, which eliminated the Cubs 62-43 a year ago en route to winning the 2A title.

“Do they realize that’s the team that knocked them out? Yes, but it’s not the same team,” Johnson said. “We have to prepare for this year’s team and be ready to play.”

Johnson contends John Curtis, which is riding a 13-game win streak, plays at a faster tempo this season and may be more athletic. Kolby Morgan led the Patriots with 31 points in their 62-51 quarterfinal win over Lake Arthur.

Sophomore guard Alanie Fisher and senior guard DiMond Jackson, who combined for 42 points in U-High’s 75-47 quarterfinal win over Doyle, lead the Cubs with 14.7 and 14.1 scoring averages followed by junior forward Terriel Ross (13 points, six rebounds) and sophomore guard MiKayla Bates (9.6 ppg, 4.2 steals).

“Our team kind of welcomes a challenge because we went such a long stretch without one,” said Johnson, whose team enjoyed a 37-point average margin of victory in district. “The challenges in the playoffs were very welcomed by our team.”

RAYVILLE VS. ALBANY: Besides the 30-point differential in the final score, more than anything Adams liked his veteran’s team demeanor after their 77-47 quarterfinal triumph over Loyola Prep.

“Their response was like it was just another game,” said Adams, whose squad lost 55-41 to Loyola in last year’s state title game.

“They stood up, shook hands and I could kind of see on their faces they were ready to take the next step.”

Albany survived the rigors of a challenging predistrict schedule and has reeled off 16 consecutive wins and won 21 of 22 games since a 64-34 loss nearly a month ago to Class 4A power Salmen.

Senior forward Danielle Keith is one of four returning starters and averages a double-double, leading Albany with 19.6 points and 10.4 rebounds. The Hornets also rely on production from senior guard Shelby Stewart (10.9 points, 6.4 assists, 5.4 steals, 5.0 rebounds) and junior guard Lauren Thompson (9.2 points, 3.5 assists, 3.2 steals).

Rayville, which was ousted in last year’s regional, advanced past Notre Dame of Crowley 60-46 and has won its past 12 games.

“I think our kids are focused,” Adams said. “They understand that situation after being there and having the pressure of being No. 1 most of the year and they’ve responded well.”

CENTRAL CATHOLIC VS. WEST ST. JOHN: A year after being eliminated 63-54 by Tensas in the semifinals, West St. John returns a veteran group in search of the school’s first state title.

“We set a goal right after the game,” Smith said.

“We played in a tough summer league at Warren Easton, played a tough schedule to try and get better every game and it’s paid off.”

West St. John, which eliminated CCMC 69-62 in last year’s quarterfinals, has dominated throughout the season, losing only to Class 4A’s No. 1-seeded team Warren Easton (74-54) on Dec. 18.

Since then, the Rams have rattled off 18 consecutive victories after advancing past Hanson Memorial-Franklin 60-46 in Monday’s quarterfinal round.

Senior guard and UL-Lafayette signee Jaylyn Gordon paces the Rams with a 23.7 scoring average.

Additional scoring punch comes from freshman point guard Mya Trench (15.7) and sophomore Jajuan Nicholas (10.5). Senior forward Deja Feist (9.7) is the team’s leading rebounder.

CCMC extended its win streak to eight games and 13 wins in their past 14 games with a 59-43 quarterfinal win over Tensas.

“We had no seniors last year,” Smith said. “So with everybody coming back they were motivated to try and get back.”