Ask players on the undefeated West Lowndes girls basketball team about the Panthers’ road ahead, and you’ll receive nothing but unbridled optimism.
“We’re gonna win state,” senior Marvaysha Seals proclaimed.
But ask head coach Takeea Bozeman about West Lowndes’ “wonderful” start, and there’s a note of caution, too.
“It’s kind of scary, because you don’t want to get down far in the playoffs and meet somebody you can’t play against,” Bozeman said.
So far in the regular season, the Panthers have yet to encounter such a team, winning all of their first 13 games. After finishing under .500 a season ago and bowing out to Ethel in a one-point game in the first round of the playoffs, Bozeman said she’s just grateful to see the substantial improvement her team has made.
“The hard work we put in for all these years is finally making a difference,” she said.
Seals has been consistent in her leadership role with the Panthers, and junior Tydajasha Hood — one of Seals’ closest friends on the team — has emerged as a similarly potent scoring threat.
“It doesn’t mean as much of the load on me now since she’s stepping up, but it’s great having her on my side on and off the court,” Seals said of Hood. “She’s there talking to me, and we motivate each other.”
Hood leads a six-player junior class that might be West Lowndes’ deepest group. Juniors Nenah Young, Averi Sanders and Quankeria Halbert play significant roles for the team and will be sorely needed next season.
“With improvement over the summer, we should still be playing at the same level,” Bozeman said.
Defense is critical to West Lowndes’ fast-paced offensive scheme, so having two standout defenders in Sanders and Halbert means a lot, Bozeman said.
Sanders, though, has been out a while with an ankle injury. Bozeman expects her back before the district tournament, which begins Feb. 10, and hopes she will be back even as soon as next week.
Halbert, who has had a recent uptick in her scoring, can play shooting guard, small forward or power forward — “wherever I put her,” Bozeman said. “She’s one of those versatile players. I call on her a lot for defense, and every point she gets is a plus.”
Hood and Halbert are just some of the West Lowndes players who dedicated their summers to personal improvement after the Panthers fell to Ethel 57-56 in last year’s MHSAA Class 1A first-round matchup. Ethel (7-8) joined West Lowndes’ region this season, and the Panthers will go on the road to face the Tigers on Friday.
Ethel will make the return trip to Columbus on Feb. 4, three days before West Lowndes sends off its four seniors West Lowndes’ four seniors — Seals, Takara Givens, Ashanti Williams and Lauren Bell — in its final home game, Feb. 7 against Noxapater.
“I was telling someone, ‘I’m gonna cry,'” said Bozeman, who has coached all four players since their freshman season. “We’ve had some growing pains and adjustments to get through, but that’s a special group.”
Those growing pains included finishing 11-20 freshman year and hovering around .500 the next two seasons. Now, Seals and her senior teammates have started their senior year the right way.
On the way to their 13-0 start, the Panthers swept Class 3A Noxubee County and Class 5A West Point and New Hope, earning bragging rights in their rivalry with the Trojans.
“I like hard games,” Halbert said. “I don’t like those soft games.”
West Lowndes even hung with Starkville High during a preseason jamboree.
“That Starkville game gave us a lot of confidence in ourselves,” Bozeman said. “They want to see better teams and beat better teams, so that helped a lot.”
The Panthers are in the thick of district play now, beating McAdams, Nanih Waiya and French Camp Academy by at least 15 points.
Now West Lowndes has a string of five straight road games, beginning Friday and ending in Louisville against Nanih Waiya on Jan. 28.
So how do the Panthers feel about the path to come? Optimistic, naturally.
“It’s looking pretty easy,” Halbert said. “We can do it. We can make it to the championship.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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