By Ariel Bedford
The Lady Rattlers faced an opponent that on paper seemed their mirror image Saturday afternoon in the Hampton Lady Pirates, with both teams only losing once all season and having an overall team winning percentage over ninety percent in MEAC Conference play.
Hampton established a tough, no-nonsense game plan early that slowed the game down and made each possession seem like a mini-battle. The Lady Pirates implemented a 2-3/match-up zone hybrid on defense as a quick response to FAMU’s potent front-court proved effective, even though Qiana Donald striked first with 18:15 into the game with a nice baby hook from the right block. FAMU matched HU’s defensive intensity as well, however, with Senior Tameka McKelton dramatically blocking HU’s Jericka Jenkins as she drove down the right-side of the lane, with star Antonia Bennett also in position as rotational assistance.
At every position from 1-5 on the floor, the Lady Pirates athletically matched the Lady Rattlers and defensively stretched FAMU’s offense like worn elastic. On more than a few possessions, FAMU’s Kimberly Sparkman and her teammates either stepped out-of-bounds courtesy of losing their balance at the corner of the baseline, or were pushed into a hot-potato series of errant passes that ended with a Lady Pirate steal. While points were definitely at a premium, HU’s season leading scorer Choicetta McMillan made a big three at around the 4 minute mark in the half to notch HU in the lead 19-16. Sensing her team needed a spark, HC Gibson ran the offense through her star player Bennett towards the end of the half. On one play, Bennett got an open look in the right corner with the shot falling short. #22, not giving up on the play, saved the ball with an athletic shovel pass that sailed to a FAMU player, and when the offense was reset, the Lady Rattlers executed nicely on a high-low entry pass between Freshman Jamie Foreman and Bennett, with Antonia going to the charity stripe off an HU foul. After making both shots, the score was 20-19 with FAMU getting the lead in the nip-and-tuck match. FAMU forced a few turnovers with a quick full-court trap that pushed their lead to 24-21 at the half, with both teams looking for answers on the offensive end going into the locker room.
The second half was quite similar to the 1st, with physical play being the standard from both teams, especially in the post. For FAMU, it was obvious that the strategy was to get the ball to Bennett on the block early and often. Due to the pesky D from Hampton’s Nicole Hamilton and Alyssa Bennett however, that stratagem, along with outside shot attempts from the Lakeland area product, proved futile, as Antonia shot a paltry 22% from the field in the 2nd Half.
In order to compensate for the loss of star player and Tallahassee native Melanie Warner due to a recent finger injury suffered in a team practice, Hampton relied on a surprisingly aggressive performance from Guard Jericka Jenkins. The ball-handler from the Lone Star State shot the ball 10 times in the second period, darting into the paint area for runners and pull-up jump shots that allowed for put-back opportunities through offensive rebounds by her teammates. Forward Keiara Avant was one such player who benefited from Jenkins’ confidence, finishing with 18 points and 17 rebounds for the game, including the winning put-back shot off a gutsy floater attempt by the aforementioned Jenkins.
With 9.7 seconds left in the match and down three points, the Lady Rattlers were able to create a turnover off the Hampton in-bounds pass by implementing a furious full-court trap that smothered the Lady Pirates in the lower right-corner of the floor. On their final possession sharp-shooter Tameka McKelton got a good look from 30 feet away, but her attempt at sending the slugfest into overtime careened out of the cylinder.
Below are post-game comments from Hampton’s Ariel Phelps, Jericka Jenkins, and Melanie Warner, along with post-game analysis via press conference from FAMU’s Kimberly Sparkman, Antonia Bennett, and HC LeDawn Gibson:
In such a highly competitive game with two evenly matched teams, usually the team who turns the ball over the most loses. But FAMU had two less than their opponents, 14 to 16. Also, FAMU actually had the advantage in auxiliary stats such as 2nd chance points, points off turnovers, and bench points. This tough loss will surely leave the Lady Rattlers upset and looking for answers as the MEAC Tournament approaches.