Baker’s Eugenea James not holding back going into senior season

Baker High’s Eugenea James is taking a full-throttle approach to basketball games these days. Call it hoops therapy for the 5-foot-10 senior-to-be who remembers all too well her last high school game.

The third-seeded Buffaloes advanced all the way to the Class 3A title game in Monroe but wound up getting throttled by Rayville High, 71-38.

“I don’t know what I can say about that game, other than it motivates me now,” James said. “They (Rayville players) got in my face, really everybody’s face and didn’t give us any space. It wasn’t good.”

Monday night gave James the latest chance to flex her considerable basketball muscle in a theraputic way. She scored a team-high 22 points to help the Buffaloes claim a 40-32 victory over rival Zachary High in a summer league game played at Broadmoor High.

It was the eighth straight summer league win for Baker, punctuating what has been an offseason of transition for James and her young teammates.

In addition to graduating several key seniors, including point guard Anitra Whitfield, the Buffaloes also lost coach Michael Stephens, who stepped down to devote more time to his family. Stephens led Baker to 3A runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2013. Jackie Mullins is the new head coach, while Shawn Bradford remains as a nonfaculty assistant.

“I do miss coach Stephens,” James said. “But it’s been good with coach Mullins and coach Bradford. They aren’t coaches who like to yell, but they believe in hard work.

“There are days when we’re supposed to get done with practice at 2 p.m. and we might be there working until 2:30 or 2:45.

“We’ve got a group of younger players who don’t mind that work. And that’s good. I like this team.”

And so does Mullins, who served as Stephens’ assistant for four seasons.

“One of my goals was for the girls to learn and execute a man (-to-man) offense,” Mullins said.

“It’s been tough at times. But the last couple of weeks you can tell we’ve turned the corner. They’ve caught on to the things we want to do. We want it (Baker program) to continue to grow.”

Mullins also has specific goals for James, who averaged 19.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, earning All-Metro and Class 3A all-state honors as a junior.

“Eugenea is just a tremendous athlete, one of the best in our school,” Mullins said. “She’s a better athlete than some of our guys. She’s so strong. With that said, there are things she needs to improve on in order to be ready for the next level. That title game had to be a wake-up call for her.

“All year long Eugenea dominated people, and in the first five minutes of that game, the post player for Rayville (Louisiana’s Miss Basketball LaDencia Johnson) sent every shot she put up back out at her.”

Mullins has challenged James, who transferred from Port Allen High after her sophomore year, to be a leader for the Buffaloes. Mullins does not question the effort he gets from James during games but does want her to push harder in practices and be a vocal leader.

The physical challenges for James include developing a midrange jump shot, handling the ball better and using her left hand more. James’ brother, Lavar, has become Mullins’ ally for these tasks. Nearly every day she drives to Plaquemine for an additional workout surpervised by her 20-year-old sibling.

“He’s got me shooting 500 shots a day from all over the court and doing all kinds of drills,” James said. “He makes me wear those glasses that don’t let you see yourself dribble. And he makes me use my left hand instead of my right and work on boxing out under the goal. I can see a difference in how I play.”

The thought of James getting better may be a scary one for opponents.

The fact that Class 2A power University High moves into Baker’s district offers a new challenge and added motivation.

“The thing about her (James) is that she’s so physically strong,” West Feliciana coach Rod Lemoine said. “Whenever she gets the ball down on the block, it’s almost impossible to stop her. She also has a good knack for getting to the ball.”

Parlaying those skills into a college scholarship is another key goal for James in 2013-14. She carries a 3.4 grade-point average and made a 16 on her only ACT test try, finding out afterwards that she shouldn’t have left any test bubbles blank. “I won’t do that the next time,” James said. “I learned my lesson on that.”

James is eager to learn which schools will contact her in July, the first time NCAA coaches can call 2014 prospects. She’s gotten letters from several state colleges in recent months. Another title run by Baker certainly wouldn’t hurt James’ recruitment, and she knows that.

“I want to play in college,” James said. “More than that, I want this team to win. That comes first.”