As a senior returning from last year's state championship season, Aberdeen's Jimmia McCluskey expected to play a leadership role as the Eagles set out to defend their Class 3A girls basketball title. She just didn't know how critical her leadership would become.
In January, a young Eagles team looked to McCluskey when fellow senior Brionna Jones, last season's All-Metro Player of the Year and the centerpiece of the Eagles' offense, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee and was lost for the season.
"I give Jimmia tremendous credit," Aberdeen coach Amber Milnes said, "because when Bri got hurt, she kind of put the team on her shoulders and decided it was now her mission to get the team as far along as they could go, motivating the girls and being the pace maker, the pulse of the team."
McCluskey also helped the No. 2 Eagles keep pace when point guard Kierra Palmer missed a week with a concussion and the first two players off the bench were sidelined temporarily with academic issues.
"I had to step up," McCluskey said, "because as a captain, I had to let my team know that just because Bri's down doesn't mean we're down. If we want this goal [another state championship], we've got to keep pushing to get it."
No one has been pushing harder than McCluskey, a defensive spitfire who can hound an opposing point guard into a turnover and battle the boards with players much taller than her 5-foot-4 frame. Her spark has the Eagles (23-3) right where they want to be — playing Damascus in the state semifinals Thursday at 7 p.m. at UMBC.
"She brings a lot of hustle and spirit to our team," Jones said. "I think without her, our energy would not be the same. Her leadership is tremendous."
The Eagles' new style certainly highlights McCluskey's strengths, and it also fits the young starters who follow her lead — sophomore guards Palmer and Nazje Norton and freshman forwards Stephanie Jones and Endia Jones.
Instead of the half-court game built around the 6-foot-3 Brionna Jones' inside domination, they can run all the time. The steal, run and rebound game showcases the speed, quickness and athleticism that also made McCluskey a state champion last spring in outdoor track in two events — the 100-meter dash and the long jump.
Aberdeen track coach John Mobley can barely watch McCluskey, who has signed to run at Temple next year, play basketball. While he enjoys seeing her destroy an opponent's offensive rhythm or soar above the crowd for a short jumper, he winces every time she hits the floor hard — and with her aggressive style that can happen several times a game.
"What gives me the fear that I have is what makes her great and that is her tenacity," Mobley said. "I can't get upset with her because that is just Jimmia. She's going to give you 100 percent of herself whatever she does. She's a competitor."
In Friday night's Class 3A North regional championship victory over No. 5 City, 73-45, she sparked the run that put the game away. She helped force six turnovers in a five-minute stretch that turned a six-point deficit into a 19-point lead.
The same thing happened in a 75-51 win over No. 14 Patterson Mill a month ago. McCluskey had three steals, three assists and six points in a little over four minutes to boost an eight-point lead to 23 points.
"She made all the difference in the world," Patterson Mill coach Holly Ismail said of McCluskey, who averages 11.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 3.2 steals. "Her defense is phenomenal. We were like, 'Wow.' She really, really pressured our point guard, like in her shorts all game long. She can go that hard for a full game."
McCluskey, 18, started drawing attention from college track coaches after the state championships. She had struggled with injuries during her freshman and sophomore seasons, but last spring, she broke through, especially with a personal best 19 feet on her last attempt in the state finals for the long jump.
"The 19 came out of nowhere," McCluskey said, "because I had never been consistent. I was in the high 17's. I love jumping and for me to be able to win that and say I jumped a 19 as a junior, it was like the best feeling in my life. My goal was always to jump like the Olympic girls and make 21s, so to come out of nowhere and jump 19, I shocked myself."
Even with that success, McCluskey's heart remained on the basketball court.
She skipped running last summer to concentrate on playing basketball with the Fairfax Stars, hoping she might draw the attention of a college coach or two.
When that didn't happen, she started to think more seriously about track.
"At first I was like, 'I want to play basketball,' but something told me that track was going to get me so much farther," McCluskey said. "It was just me. I had to work on myself and I fell in love with track. I did like them both, but they kind of evened out, especially after the whole state thing. I had more confidence and I was like, 'OK, maybe I can do this.' "
She considered offers from Georgia Southern and George Mason before settling on Temple, where she plans to major in physical therapy.
This spring, her goals are to run under 12 seconds in the 100 meters and to jump 20 feet in the long jump. She will also try the high jump.
Mobley has no doubt McCluskey made the right decision to run track in college.
"Her parents, myself and coach [Kyree] Edwards, we joke and say we're saving our money up for the 2016 Olympics. We really feel she's that quality of an athlete. Now with track as her focus, we feel the sky's the limit."
For a few days more, however, McCluskey will focus on basketball.
"That's what I've been thinking about these past couple weeks ever since I committed to Temple. After this, basketball is over for me.
"It hurts, but at the same time I can still get with my friends and have games at the gym, but it's not going to be the same as it was playing in a real game. I'll probably be coming to Bri's games [at Maryland] to watch her and she's like, 'Don't forget me when you go to the Olympics. I'm coming with you,'" McCluskey said with a laugh.
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