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No. 1 North Augusta wants continued improvement; Aiken is the next chance

Jan. 8—Region play is underway in high school basketball, and for nearly a decade that has meant one thing for the North Augusta girls.

Winning.

The No. 1 Jackets (13-5, 1-0) opened Region 4-AAAA play Friday with a suffocating win over South Aiken, and up next is a home game against an Aiken team that also is off to a 1-0 start to region play. That game, originally scheduled for Tuesday, was postponed due to dangerous weather in the forecast.

"I certainly hope we feel OK and, in the same breath, I hope that we feel like we got to work harder to get better," said North Augusta head coach Al Young.

North Augusta challenged itself with a gauntlet of a non-region schedule, which took on added importance due to some injuries and inexperience among some key players for the defending state champions.

"I think all of our kids have grown some. We've gotten better, and I certainly hope we'll continue to grow," Young said. "Again, I don't think we are where we need to be, or we're going to be, but that's to be expected."

The next test will be against an Aiken (9-3, 1-0) team led by the experienced 1-2 punch of senior Norriyah Bradley and junior Malasia Jamison, who have played in a combined 130 games at the varsity level. They combined to score 38 points in Friday's 53-46 win over Airport, and they took over the game in the fourth quarter to help the Hornets overcome a four-point deficit.

"It's making the younger players a little bit more confident," said Aiken head coach Aubrey Pompey. "I've got an eighth- and ninth-grader starting, and they're just going with the flow. The biggest thing is that when they make mistakes, the way Norriyah and Malasia react to it, they're OK. They let them play through it."

The eighth-grader is 5-foot-8 guard/forward Azaria Sapp, and at times this season she's looked just as comfortable playing varsity minutes as she did last year while dominating for Schofield Middle.

"Let's put it this way — when she's playing, I don't see an eighth-grader," Pompey sad of Sapp, who is averaging 8.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. "I see a player that's able to play, when she gets it going, on a high level. Now, she does make some eighth-grade mistakes, but she will be able to play at a very high level. She shows flashes, so I think she's going to be OK. She fits right in."

Having that much youth in the starting lineup — guard Makinley Pleming is a freshman, and this is only junior center Scotland Staley's second year of basketball — makes the presence of Bradley and Jamison even more important. That will come in handy as the Hornets face the top-ranked Jackets, who held South Aiken to 15 points in Friday's win.

The key for the Hornets will be to prepare to play Aiken basketball to the best of their ability, and to not get too caught up in what North Augusta is going to do. That's something Pompey saw his team improve on against Dutch Fork, which beat Aiken by 50 points on Dec. 7. The Hornets cleaned up their end of the floor for a four-point win over the same team only 11 days later.

This Aiken team has had a habit of pulling it all together in crunch time to find ways to win. One of the ways the Hornets have done that is with their aggressive brand of rebounding, which has led to additional possessions and opportunities to score. Jamison, Bradley, Staley and Sapp all crash the boards, and that should make for an interesting matchup with a North Augusta team that does the same.

Sophomore Messiah Williams, junior Madison McCain, freshman Ashley Walker and sophomore Celena Grant each average at least 6.5 rebounds per game, combining for 27.5 per night as a group. Williams, a 6-2 center, is the team leader with 7.7 boards per game, and last season she showed signs that she can be a vicious shot-blocker.

The talk about the North Augusta girls for the last decade or so has started with their defense, which is something that can frustrate even the most experienced ball handlers. That's something they'll look to fine-tune during the region schedule.

Young said the main takeaway from the non-region was for the players to understand they need to play with their best effort each time they take the floor, as that's what it's going to take for them to continue getting better as they work toward peaking in time for the playoffs.

The expectations remain high for North Augusta, which has now won 70 consecutive region games and nine straight league titles to go along with five state championships in the last seven years. The focus isn't on those numbers accomplished by past teams, especially considering the pressure it can put on such a young team.

"We have to understand that it's not about winning championships, but it's about doing the little things it takes to win championships," Young said. "So we kind of preach that and try to get our kids to understand that those things don't happen automatically, that it requires work, dedication, sacrifice, and we try to preach and talk from that standpoint."