By Gabriel Stovall
JONESBORO, Ga. — Tiesha Wilson got the expected answer when she asked her Mount Zion girls basketball team an obvious question.
“Look, ladies. Do you guys want to go home Friday night,” the long time Lady Bulldogs coach asked a group of doubled over, profusely sweating hoopers during a Wednesday practice — less than 24 hours after playing a game.
Senior guard Tyeisha Juhan, along with a couple others piped up in unison. “No,” they shouted back before Wilson could even finish her sentence.
Mount Zion answered the same question in a different way Tuesday night — albeit, just as emphatically. The answer came in the Lady Bulldogs’ 67-51 win over Monroe in the first round of the Class AAAA state tournament.
The exclamation point was Juhan’s stat line: 41 points, 12 rebounds and seven steals. It was Juhan’s seventh 30-plus scoring performance and second game of the season pouring in over 40.
A surprise for her — Juhan said she thought she may have had 20 points at the most before she peeped the stat sheet at the end of the game — Wilson says she didn’t flinch as she witnessed her star player’s dominance.
“I expect it,” Wilson said. “The talent has always been there for Tyeisha, but the maturity has taken some time. She’s stepped up tremendously. What I saw last night could be her every night if she wants it.”
Juhan herself will tell you that she’s come a long way as a baller and as a person overall. She says the rigor of the transformation from hot-headed post player as a freshman to being one of the highest scoring guards in the state hasn’t been lost on her.
“I think I’ve grown a lot,” Juhan said. “I’ve learned how to play through calls, and I’ve learned how to play through the roughness. I used to scream at the refs when I didn’t get calls. I used to get (technical fouls). I used to be bad, but I grew up a lot. Now I don’t say anything about calls. I just keep trying.”
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t still keep track of when the whistles are blowing in her favor.
When asked why she rated her 41 point performance Tuesday night over her career-high 45 point outing against Hampton in last year’s region tournament, Juhan said her ability to draw positive contact was one of the separation points.
“Oh yeah, it was definitely the best game that I’ve played,” she said. “I definitely got more and-ones than I ever had before.”
But Juhan’s maturation has only been a mirror of what the rest of her team has experienced over the years. Senior point guard Fredeja Ransom can also recall a time when 40-point games, region championships and talks of deep state tourney runs were like speaking a foreign language.
“I’m shorter, but I used to be a post player,” Ransom said.
“So did I,” Juhan, standing at about 5-foot-8, interjected.
“We used to be very slow and very sluggish,” Ransom continued. “We’re much more aggressive and a much more fast paced team now. We can run teams out of the gym now. If a team turns its back on us, we’re coming.”
Juhan further enumerated the team’s growing pains.
“We used to be a mess,” she said. “When I first got here, it was just crazy. But now, it’s just a difference. We just all played together all the time. We play AAU ball together. We play school ball together. We practice together. We’ve just got that chemistry now.”
And while Wilson herself can’t really put her finger on it, she won’t rule out the possibility of some heavenly assistance in the re-shaping of Juhan and her team.
“I’m a firm believer in God, so I think some prayer and divine intervention definitely is the cause for it,” she said with a chuckle.
Another reason is probably the uptick in competition Mount Zion has seen this season. For the first time in Wilson’s 11 years at the school — four of them as head girls coach — the Lady Bulldogs took their show on the road, playing in tough tournaments such as the Thanksgiving Tournament at Grovetown, and the “Balln Prep PowHer Invite” during winter break in Montgomery, Ala.
The latter featured some of the top girls teams across the southeast from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. Mount Zion won all three of those games by no less than 13 points, including a 30-point beatdown of Carver-Birmingham, which is currently 21-8 and playing for an area championship.
Wilson said she felt her team was ready for such competition, given the way they shifted their intensity during summer workouts. And she says the team’s homegrown makeup has made their success even more meaningful.
“I started off here as the ninth grade coach for six years, then JV coach and now I’m in my fourth year as Varsity coach,” Wilson said. “So I’ve had the opportunity to see these girls grow from the beginning, and that’s very gratifying. I remember it was tough at first. Really tough. They were really immature. They didn’t understand the process and the hard work that goes with being successful.
“But the way they’ve worked this summer especially, they proved that they were ready. This year, we’re seeing the fruits of our labor.”
Even younger players like sophomore Asyia Cunningham can see the change.
“This year we’re just working harder and we’re not giving up,” Cunningham said. “I think sometimes we kinda gave up last year. You can tell we’ve got more heart this year.”
Which is why the Lady Bulldogs say they want more, starting with Friday’s second round matchup against Buford which beat Whitewater 63-38 Wednesday night.
“Last year’s loss (to Carrollton in the second round of state) had a lot to do with it,” Ransom said. “We saw where we needed to improve on and do what we need to do to win and go farther than last year. We came in saying this is our year, and we can’t slack.”