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From the inside out, No. 1 Aberdeen girls proving they can win as a team

All-Metro center Bri Jones gets most of the attention, but balance, unselfishness have been key to Eagles' success

By Katherine Dunn, The Baltimore Sun

6:50 PM EST, January 25, 2012

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Senior TK Fowlkes needs only two words to explain the success of Aberdeen's No. 1-ranked girls basketball team.

"Unselfish basketball."

The Eagles are 14-0 heading into Friday afternoon's Basketball Academy showdown with No. 2 Digital Harbor at Lake Clifton and, as a group, they're willing to do whatever it takes to maintain that success.

A year ago, they reached the state Class 3A semifinal for the first time in school history and were leading Frederick by a point in the final minute but could not hold on. They didn't score in the last 41 seconds, falling 76-71 thanks in large part to foul trouble and turnovers.

"That was a hard loss, so we set a goal to win it all this year," senior Nia Alleyne said. "When we got up there [to UMBC], it was a team, but it was more like individuals. Now this year, it's team and team only. We realize when you play as a team, everybody's stats and all the good stuff comes."

The Eagles win by an average margin of 34.9 points this season, and only one opponent has come within 13 points — Western Branch (Va.), 49-44, in the second game of the season at the Beast of the East Showcase at St. Frances.

The Eagles' offense revolves around 6-foot-3 All-Metro junior center Bri Jones, but they are stellar throughout the starting lineup. No one else is over 5-8, but that doesn't matter because the Eagles are quick and relentless on both ends of the court.

Although just 5-7, Fowlkes can crash the boards with much taller players. Junior forward Jimmia McCluskey plays more like a guard and is "the heart of the defense," according to coach Stacy Liles. Backcourt seniors Lakeia Hayden, the point guard, and Alleyne set the tempo and can be lethal from 3-point range.

On most other teams, any one of the four could be the center of a game plan, but they support Jones first and look for their own scoring second.

"In this day and age it's so hard to get kids committed to making sure someone else shines," Joppatowne coach Michael Harris said. "They sacrifice a lot of their own glory, their own stats, for the good of the team. They all play tremendously hard, which is causing them to have the great season they're having."

Jones, who leads the team with 23.5 points and 13 rebounds per game, will be the first to say she can't do it alone. With great positioning and great hands, she cleans up on the boards, but she is also the beneficiary of excellent entry passes dished out from all around. The Eagles have 300 assists through 14 games, which is more than 21 per game.

"We drilled it into their heads last year that it's not just Bri," Liles said. "We told them, 'You've got to understand that yes, we want Bri to touch the ball, but you've got to work the game from the inside out. If you get the ball inside, they're going to have to clog the inside and that's when your shots come open.' They see that this year. I saw it at the Wise game where they all scored in double figures."

At one point in their 82-44 win over Wise at the 39th Annual IAABO Holiday Girls Basketball Tournament last month, Jones scored 12 straights points, assisted by five different teammates.

"I'm really fortunate," Jones said. "I just have to get down the floor and they pass it to me. They all know what they're doing. I trust them and I know they're going to do the right thing."

With that victory, the Eagles became the first Baltimore team to win the prestigious IAABO tournament at Prince George's County Community College in 13 years.

Jones scored 30 points in the title game and was named Most Valuable Player, but all the other starters also scored in double figures. Together, they dealt Wise — the No. 10 team in The Washington Post and last season's Class 4A state runners up — its only loss of the season.

"They play hard. They play together," Wise coach Walter Clark said. "They're a fantastic group. They don't just win with [Jones]. They all seem to understand and embrace their roles. Even though they beat us up pretty bad, it was fun just watching them play, because I thought they played the game the right way."

The Eagles have an easy, business-like rapport on the court that comes from playing together for a long time. Jones, Hayden, Alleyne and McCluskey started playing basketball together on a travel team when they were 5 or 6.

They didn't all stay together over the years, but they met again at Aberdeen where Fowlkes joined them. Hayden, McCluskey and Fowlkes still play on the same Amateur Athletic Union team.

"We have good chemistry on and off the court," Hayden said. "We all get along, so we help each other in practice. We all work hard, so that way we push each other to just get better."

On a team with so much balance, leadership could be a problem, but the Eagles make it work. Jones leads by example and she will call for the ball, but she's a quiet leader, so the vocal leadership falls to the others. Hayden sets the pace for the offense on the court, but they all say it's not difficult to share the leadership role.

"We're the captains," Alleyne said of herself and Hayden, "but at the end of the day, anybody can pick up anybody else. Everybody speaks up. Nobody's shy on this team. If you see somebody slacking, somebody's going to say something. We don't take it as being bossy. We all just help each other, because we want to win."

Liles, whose team also plays No. 7 Dunbar on Saturday at the Basketball Academy and meets national powerhouse Riverdale Baptist on the road next month, made the same commitment to the team as her players this winter, despite initially planning to leave at the conclusion of last season. Juggling teaching, coaching and being the mother of 18-month old twins was getting to be too much to handle, but she agreed to return when Aberdeen boys basketball coach Richard Hart let the girls have all the early practices.

"I never wanted to leave," Liles said. "They're hard workers and they all get along. You don't get a team like this every day."

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

16th Annual Basketball Academy

When: Thursday, Friday, Saturday

Where: Lake Clifton

What: A total of 20 boys and girls basketball games, including the No. 1 Aberdeen girls vs. No. 2 Digital Harbor (Friday, 4 p.m.) and the No. 1 Dunbar boys vs. No. 2 Milford Mill (Thursday, 8 p.m.).

For the full schedule, visit baltimoresun.com/varsity.

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