March 23, 2014

All-Area Girls Basketball Team and Player of the Year: Halle Ford's play passes the eye test as area's best

In her senior season on the basketball court, Northwest Whitfield High School point guard Halle Ford averaged 12 points, four assists and four steals per game. While there are basketball players in the area with better stats, there aren’t better basketball players.

“What I tell everybody about her is she’s a basketball player,” Northwest coach Greg Brown said. “We have a lot of people who play basketball, but she is a basketball player. There’s a difference.”

There’s a big difference — and when you watch someone play basketball, sometimes it just makes sense.

When Ford played the game, simple-minded measuring sticks such as statistics held less importance, if any at all. She was the best player.

You could see it just as easily as she could see a passing lane between two defenders that others couldn’t, lob a cross-court assist on a fast break, drive to the basket by an overmatched defender, record back-to-back, game-changing steals and layups within 20 seconds or hit a game-tying 3-pointer to keep region championship hopes alive.

She was the driver of a vintage 1964 Mustang — and she looked comfortable behind the wheel, steering and changing gears like a natural.

Ford drove that Mustang to the second round of the Class 4A state tournament, the deepest postseason run for any local girls program since Dalton’s run to the Class 3A state title game in 2011. It was also the deepest run for the Lady Bruins since they reached the Class 4A title game in 2010.

Because of her leadership, skill and fearless nature on the court, Ford is The Daily Citizen’s 2013-14 All-Area Girls Basketball Player of the Year.

She is joined on the All-Area Team by Northwest teammate Macy Weeks, Christian Heritage’s Sarah Massengale, Dalton’s Hannah Cox and Southeast Whitfield’s Crickett Wyatt. The Player of the Year and All-Area Team are picked by The Daily Citizen’s sports staff based on nominations and input from area coaches.

Soft-spoken off the court, Ford was a four-year starter for Northwest. That meant as a freshman she was filling the leadership role that comes at point guard while playing against more experienced players.

Brown was an assistant to coach Margaret Stockburger that 2010-11 season — he took over the program the following year — and he saw in Ford an attribute that leveled the field for her against those veterans: a vacancy of any noticeable fear.

Although she didn’t start from the beginning of her freshman season, she impressed Brown when she took the larger role.

“We knew how important she’d be during her 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade years,” he said. “She always had that competitive fire about her.”

Just because Ford didn’t show fear doesn’t mean she wasn’t scared, though. She was. She admits it. However, as her high school playing days progressed, so did she — both in her on-court skills and leadership.

“I talk a lot more now,” she said. “That’s very important. ... I’m more of a leader than I used to be.”

Ford earned honorable mention for all-area after her freshman and sophomore seasons. Last season, when she was a member of the All-Area Team, she helped lead the Lady Bruins to a share of the Sub-region 7B-4A title, a runner-up finish in the Region 7-4A tournament and their first appearance in the state tournament in two years. Ford averaged nine points, four assists and 3.3 steals peer game.

“I didn’t really start scoring until my junior year,” said Ford, who started playing basketball at age 6.

The moment Brown recalls from Ford’s development as a leader was a 40-39 win over Dalton during her junior season. With Northwest trailing 39-37 in the final minute, Ford wanted the ball. She wanted to take the shot.

She hit the game-winning 3-pointer.

“The thing I’ll always remember and always tell is she’s the toughest player I’ve ever coached,” Brown said. “Toughness is not pushing people around. She did all the little things. She did everything. She could rebound when I needed rebounds. She could defend when I needed defense. She never wanted to come out. She wanted the ball when it mattered. When the game was on the line, she wanted the ball when it mattered.

“I think last year, she hit the 3 to beat Dalton at their place after we kind of struggled for a while. Everyone knew where the ball needed to go at that moment. ... She made no bones about it during the timeout. I’ll never forget it.”

Then, there was this past season.

Right away, Ford seemed at ease running the Lady Bruins’ fast-paced, end-to-end offense. Like in-his-prime Steve Nash on the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns teams that prided themselves on scoring quick to maximize possessions and tire opponents, Ford and her teammates pushed defenses to keep up with their pace for 32 minutes and left opponents in the dust if they fell behind. Northwest finished 24-5 overall and went 10-0 in sub-region play. Of the Lady Bruins’ wins, 18 were by more than 20 points.

“We all worked hard, including myself,” Ford said of the season. “We all got along. ... I’m most proud of starting all four years and how far we got in the state tournament.”

Ford scored a season-high 23 points and pulled down eight rebounds as the Lady Bruins lost in the Region 7-4A championship game to River Ridge for the second straight year. She also had 20-point efforts in the region tournament win against Gilmer and an early season win over Murray County. She recorded nine assists in a win against Ridgeland and eight steals in a win over East Hamilton.

Not included in her four assists per game were passes to a teammate that led to a shooting foul, which don’t show up on assist totals even if the shooter makes the free throws. There were a lot of those.

Not included in her four steals per game were the tips in Northwest’s full-court zone press that resulted in other players getting the steal. There were quite a few of those, too.

Not included in her 12 points per game were the times she passed up a good shot to get teammates a great one. There were more of those unselfish moments than anything else.

“She could’ve been the first player to score over 1,000 points at Northwest in a long time,” Brown said, noting her stats also were affected because she didn’t play in the fourth quarter of eight blowout wins. “That’s not our system and she was comfortable with that.”

Ford was an All-Region 7-4A selection and finished second in Region 7-4A Player of the Year voting by the league’s coaches. And she drew such accolades while playing with an unselfish attitude.

“She’s a good leader and she’s confident in herself,” said Weeks, who earned all-region second-team honors. “If coach Brown were to ask her to go play post, she’d go do it. She doesn’t think of herself. She thinks of whatever will better the team.”

But with the game on the line in the Region 7-4A tournament semifinals against Gilmer, Ford wanted the ball. She knew passing up shots often made the team better, but taking this one did the same thing.

“You have to have someone like that to reach that next level,” Brown said. “You need someone like that who, with the game on the line in big games, will make big plays. ... I think that rubbed off on the rest of our kids. I think that rubbed off on the rest of them, that toughness.”

Northwest trailed Gilmer 40-37 in the final minute, and Ford hit the game-tying 3-pointer. Northwest won 53-40 in overtime, clinched a home game in the first round of state and won 61-48 against Carrollton as Ford had 17 points, eight assists and three steals. She also had all three assists as sharp-shooting senior Mallory Souther, the third-leading scorer on the team, made three consecutive 3-pointers to put Northwest ahead by 10 in the third quarter.

“If you polled the kids on who our best player was, they’d immediately say her,” Brown said. “They play harder for her at times because they don’t want to let her down. They knew how much it meant to her and how hard she worked. That’s how I measure being a leader. ... There were times when she would be vocal when she needed to be, during practice or timeouts during games.

“And there were times she offered encouragement. There were moments during her senior year when someone struggled and she said, ‘It’s OK.’ That’s something she never would’ve done as a ninth-grader. That’s the maturity I’m talking about.”

Ford hasn’t signed with a college program, but she wants to keep playing and said Covenant College in Lookout Mountain and Tennessee’s Cleveland State Community College have expressed interest. Wherever she ends up, her four-year career at Northwest will be remembered for a long time.

“Winning in the first round of the state tournament kind of solidifies her career, because that’s something that hadn’t been done at Northwest since she got there,” Brown said. “I think that’s what she’ll be remembered for, her toughness and helping this team get back to where it wanted to go.”

Hannah Cox, post, Dalton: Playing on a young team that graduated six seniors after the 2012-13 season, the 5-10 junior helped Dalton with her long arms and presence in the post. She averaged 12 points and nine rebounds per game.

“Hannah is a kid who will outwork anyone around her,” Dalton coach Lacie Coquerille said. “She’s by far the hardest worker on a consistent basis.”

Coquerille relied a lot on Cox as the Lady Catamounts finished 10-15 but improved toward the end of the season.

Cox scored 22 points in a win against Ridgeland and 23 points in one of the Lady Cats’ losses to Northwest. A year ago, coming off the bench, she wasn’t relied on as the team’s main scoring threat. But she led the team in points and rebounds this season.

Looking to next season, she’ll be one of the tougher assignments for any of Dalton’s opponents.

“This year she was in a role that required her to score,” Coquerille said. “Coming back, health-wise, she was the only one with any varsity experience.”

This is Cox’s first all-area selection.

Sarah Massengale, guard/forward, Christian Heritage: Massengale made her presence known with 14 points and 11 rebounds on her way to an all-area honorable mention nod after the 2012-13 season.

With many of Christian Heritage players returning this past season — including four starters — Massengale again proved to be the toughest Lady Lion for opponents to face because the junior defined hustle on the basketball court.

“She is a hard worker and gives 100 percent each game,” said Heather Lowery, the longtime Lady Lions head coach who recently stepped down. “Sarah is a leader on and off the floor. Our team looks to her as a leader. She is our school’s second leading career rebounder and will likely pass that next year. She is well on her way to 1,000 points as well.”

Massengale led the area in points (16.9) and rebounds (10.9) per game. She made 39 percent of her shots.

“Sarah has been instrumental every year she has played at Christian Heritage,” Lowery said. “I feel that Sarah could match up with anyone in the area. She’s a competitor and loves the game. She is constantly working in the offseason to improve her game. Sarah is coachable and is eager to get better every day.”

This is her first all-area selection.

Macy Weeks, post, Northwest Whitfield: Ford may be the area’s best player, but Weeks was the main vocal presence on the Lady Bruins — and the area’s second-best all-around player behind Ford.

“I think she was far and away our most vocal leader,” Brown said. “Not only did she lead by example but also stepped up and said things that needed to be said.”

The 5-foot-7 senior averaged 10 points, six rebounds and two steals per game, and she stood out with 11 points and 11 rebounds in the region tournament win against Gilmer. In Northwest’s full-court 1-2-2 zone press, she was at the forefront causing trouble for opponents.

She was the “spark” for Northwest’s fast-paced style, Brown said, and her inside presence made life easier for the ball handler, Ford, and shooters like Souther and senior Kerrigan King.

“She was our energy, and when she was up — which was most of the time — we were able to be up and play up-tempo like we wanted to,” Brown said. “She was a big reason why we were able to be so successful this year.”

This is the first all-area selection for Weeks, who along with Souther helped lead Northwest to the past two Class 4A softball state titles.

Cricket Wyatt, guard, Southeast: The junior was the leading scorer for the Lady Raiders and the second-leading scorer in the area with 14.4 points per game. She made 40 percent of her 3-pointers and added 4.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals in each contest as Southeast finished 16-10 and one win shy of making the Class 4A state tournament.

And she did it despite spending part of the season dealing with the lingering effects of a torn posterior cruciate ligament suffered during the softball season.

“It really slowed her down early in the year when she had the brace on,” Lady Raiders coach Mike Durham said. “Once she got the brace off, it made a big difference.”

Wyatt was such a scoring threat that opposing teams often designed defenses specifically to stop her, taking attention from senior post Wendy Perez. Durham recalls multiple teams playing box-and-one sets with the one defender following Wyatt around the court.

But her biggest improvement from her sophomore year — when her varsity time was limited so she also could play junior varsity games, but she still did enough to earn an honorable mention spot — to her junior year was on defense.

“She understands how to play defense better and how to bang on the boards for rebounds,” Durham said. “We’re looking for her to step up and be one of the leaders. We won’t have a lot of size and we’ll still be young.”

This is her first all-area selection.

Honorable mention: Coahulla Creek — Haley Reece (Sr., G), Nikki Ross (Jr., P); Dalton — Sarah Hartshorn (Jr., G); Murray County — McKenzie Carroll (Sr., G), Caitlyn Sims (Sr., P); North Murray — Kara Deal (Sr., G), Grace Phillips (Sr., F); Northwest Whitfield — Kerrigan King (Sr., G); Mallory Souther (Sr., F); Peyton Maret (So., P); Southeast — Sydney Covington (So., G); Judelle Herrera (Jr., G); Wendy Perez (Sr., P).

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