The energy near the end of Tuesday’s Plano East girls basketball practice is palpable.
As the Lady Panthers hone their press defense in advance of Thursday’s Class 6A bi-district playoff game against Prosper, the action is hardly contained to the 10 players maneuvering up the court. Even the players not participating in the drill are shouting words of encouragement and instruction to their teammates from the sidelines, be it closing off a certain gap or rotating on defense a bit sooner.
As the offense scrambles to find an open jump shot, the ball finally goes up and clanks off the basket for a miss. The gymnasium erupts to celebrate the defensive stop.
The ball is inbounded, and the Lady Panthers head right back up the floor for another practice rep.
There’s plenty of energy around the East girls basketball program these days — the Lady Panthers haven’t lost a game since Dec. 4 and just polished off a perfect 14-0 trek through 6-6A for their first district championship since 2008.
“We’ve come a long way from being just a new group of kids and then having a new coach and a new culture,” said Tiana Amos, Plano East junior. “There was a lot of change we had to go through, but pulling off that accomplishment meant a lot to the program, the community and just the east side as a whole.”
It’s rarified air for the Lady Panthers, who had been on the cusp of contention for some time. East has been plenty consistent over the years — they’ve qualified for the playoffs 12 of the past 15 seasons — but is yet to experience the playoff highs of their citywide rivals at Plano and Plano West. Both programs have captured state titles in girls basketball over the past 15 years and made a score of deep playoff runs along the way.
The Lady Panthers have a chance to make their own mark in the weeks to come.
“We want to be our own version and be something that’s unique to ourselves. We want to make our own name,” said Ada Anamekwe, East junior.
“It was more about us earning it and not feeling like anything was handed to us,” Amos added. “We want them to see that this is us and this is what we represent. It was never about trying to beat Plano or West or any other team — we just want to show everyone what Plano East is about.”
That message has been well received throughout 6-6A this season. The Lady Panthers won their 14 district ballgames by an average of 19.2 points. That run didn’t come without some close calls — games head coach Jessica Linson feels might have slipped away from last year’s team — but East kept its composure and persevered late. They’ve done so behind a defensive energy that suffocated opposing teams to the tune of just 36.3 points allowed per game.
“It was a really big deal. There have been times when East was kind of the stepchild. This group has the talent and had been knocking on the door but no one had really respected them,” Linson said. “It was a big deal for them and they wanted to earn that respect. It was just dominating how they did it.”
That defense has become a calling card for the Lady Panthers, as well as a sign of their growth. Last season, East deployed just one type of press, called “diamond,” and used it sporadically — no more than a half or so.
Linson and her players have expanded on those defensive concepts for the team’s 2021 campaign. Not only do the Lady Panthers mix up their presses and defensive sets — they’ll keep their foot on the gas all 32 minutes of game time.
“It comes with being smarter and mature enough to deal with the mistakes from the press when you’re having to be that aggressive,” Linson said. “You’ll give up layups and other things, but they know how to process all that and not let their emotions get the better of them.”
“We had one press last year and that worked for us, but we’ve grown so much as a defensive team,” Anamekwe added. “We’re having to do so many more things and be more versatile as players, so I feel like what we do this year with rotating through defenses, it helps us stay efficient on the floor.”
The Lady Panthers have been able to relish that growth together. Four of East’s five starters — Amos, Anamekwe and juniors Donavia Hall and Kayla Cooper — all either started or played regular minutes as freshmen. Ditto for their sophomore post tandem of Idara Udo and Taylor Haggan.
They’ve all had to adapt to the varsity level faster than most underclassmen — adjusting to the uptick in talent, tempo and attention to detail — and didn’t balk at the challenge.
“It’s a pretty big change making the jump from eight grade to varsity as a freshman, but it wasn’t like we didn’t already have some experience,” Anamekwe said. “We had AAU and had to grind every day all summer just to get to this point.”
Several of the Lady Panthers cut their teeth against older players on the AAU circuit while also getting to play with some of their present-day teammates. Amos and Anamekwe suited up for DC Queens together, while Amos said she has also played with Hall and Cooper at the club level. They also remember their days as middle-schoolers holding their own against some of East’s varsity players during open gym pick-up games.
“We’ve come together and learned how to play together and how to grow together,” Anamekwe said. “It was different at first, but I think we’re at a point now where that chemistry works so well both on and off the court. We love each other, we study together, we play together, we do everything together. It’s a family here.”
“The atmosphere, the culture, the system, the coaching staff — everything is so strong and tight,” Amos added. “We all know what we’re working towards and what we’re achieving out there. It just feels great to be here.”
The Lady Panthers exude that chemistry on and off the court, from understanding one another’s strengths and weaknesses as players to planning a surprise birthday celebration in the locker room for their coach.
“They’re all such good friends and they balance each other out. There are so many different personalities — players like Savannah (Adjetey) and Rachel (Wang) are the quieter ones, Donavia is the aggressor and the big dog, Tiana is so well-spoken and Ada brings a fun personality to the mix. There’s a great mix and it helps make the perfect bond.”
Linson hopes that experience and camaraderie help steady her team for the playoffs. In looking to build on last year’s two-round postseason run, the Lady Panthers are stressing attention to detail and an understanding that every second of the game matters. If East manages to advance beyond the area round, it would be the program’s first regional quarterfinal appearance since 2001.
“The word that’s been on my mind is ‘redemption.’ We’re just ready to get started and prove our point that we’re here,” Linson said.
East tips off against Prosper at 7 p.m. Thursday at Frisco Centennial.