By Gabriel Stovall
HAMPTON, Ga. — Moments before basketball practice began at Dutchtown High Monday, it looked as if it was already over.
A custodian entered the gymnasium to dim down the lights in the rafters so that the natural light shining through the windows was the gym’s lone source of illumination.
For someone who doesn’t know the Lady Bulldogs routine, it may have seemed like it was time to vacate the gym. No practice today. Maybe coach April Tate was letting them rest instead before Tuesday’s Elite Eight game at Loganville.
Or maybe practice was just getting started.
Not a full 30 seconds after the dimming of the lights did the Lady Bulldogs file into the gym’s balcony entrance. They walked down the stairs leading to the court, began to stretch, limber up, banter and joke with each other — typical stuff a hoops family does when they’re familiar with each other.
But after a while, things turned serious. Thirteen girls walked over to the big “D” in center court, and began to lay face down.
Not because it’s the state playoffs, and a team that struggled to stay above .500 most of the season needed an extra edge for this particular part of the season. There’s no gimmick involved here. This is a part of Tate’s ongoing plan — part of her program’s DNA. It’s part of what keeps Dutchtown level headed even in the midst of adversity.
Perhaps, it was part of the reason why Dutchtown came out of Effingham victorious after a double overtime win that left “everyone tired,” but motivated. You’ve heard that quote that your favorite sport is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical? Tate believes it wholeheartedly.
“It’s more than just about basketball,” Tate said when asked about the team’s pre-practice ritual. “We always meditate. We do it before every game, too, so it’s not just about practice.”
Tate said she’s a student of the game of basketball in general. And she’s done her best to channel her inner Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson along the way.
“Whether it’s men’s basketball, women’s basketball, collegiate, professional or pee wee league, I’m always studying the game,” Tate said.
She’s a Chicago Bulls fan who makes it adamantly clear that Scottie Pippen was her guy. It took a while, she said, for her to warm up to Michael Jordan. But it was Jackson — the Bulls’ coach through its 1990s stretch of domination that saw Chicago rack up six NBA championships in two separate three-peat stints — that has most influenced the way Tate handles her Dutchtown squad.
“I’ve done a lot of things I’ve seen people do in the NBA to try and motivate my teams,” she said. “Red Auerbach never allowed his team to sit down whenever they came to the sideline.”
Tate said she tried it with one of her teams one season. Next subject, please.
“It didn’t really work that way for my girls,” she said, laughing. “It kind of backfired at times. But I read Phil Jackson’s books and saw where he always made his team meditate. That has worked out for me and our girls.”
Tate said the pre-performance downtime gives everyone a chance to “clear their heads,” and paint mental pictures of their success.
“It allows them the chance to visualize what they want to do on the court, in practice or in a game,” she said.
Perhaps the mental calisthenics were a part of the team’s big win at Effingham in the state tournament’s first round. According to senior guard Janessa Murphy, the 63-57 win in double overtime on the road was more an exercise in determination than it was physicality or skill.
“(The Effingham game) was testing us to see where our heart really was,” Murphy said. “We were down and we could’ve given up that whole game and went home. But we decided to come together, not as one individual, but as a whole team, and we worked together to pull out a win for us.”
That’s why she’s not concerned with traveling to an hostile environment in Loganville.
“I feel like we’re ready to go on the road,” she said. “That game at Effingingham made us say, ‘Yeah, we can do this. We can go on the road.’
“We like the competition.”
The Lady Bulldogs have gotten better at handling it too during the postseason. Murphy and company have won six of their last seven coming into Tuesday’s game — a big turnaround from their early-season inconsistencies.
“We weren’t finishing games before,” Tate said. “We’re now finishing. In the beginning of the season, we’d be up by 15 points and find a way to lose by one or two. We’re seeing what our strengths are now.”
Murphy and point guard Cierra Lowe are definitely part of those strengths. But Tate believes her team will win or lose, more often than not, based on the play of 6-foot-2 center Kamera Harris and 5-foot-10 forward Tiara Scott — her post players.
And against a team like Loganville which has its own trio of young-but-skilled post players in sophomores Imani Arnold and Aryanna Gerald and 6-foot freshman Ty’Ceana Reid, Tate knows she’ll need Harris and Scott to be at their best.
“(Loganville) is definitely more athletic than we are,” Tate said. “Their post players rebound well. They have aggressive guards who can shoot the ball. But we’re going to match up fairly well with them. As long as we stick to our game plan, we’ll be okay.”
Which means a trip to the Final Four for Murphy in her last year as a Bulldog.
“We feel like we’ve been underestimated, like we’re the underdogs in the situation,” Murphy said. “But we’re motivated. Our main goal is a championship. I’m a senior, so I know any day can be my last day. That motivates me to work hard for my teammates to get them to the highest level we can go.”
And if its the meditation that’s preparing Dutchtown, Tate said it’s the motivation that will propel them.
“At this point in the season, X’s and O’s are great,” Tate said. “But it’s really all about motivation right now. Our motivation to win is what will carry us.”