Young St. Frances, on the prowl again Girls basketball: This winter's Panthers are much improved over the team that struggled last season. In fact, they're 10-0, the only unbeaten Top 20 team.

January 09, 1998|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

St. Frances senior Nillion Lambert doesn't spend much time thinking about the past.

She doesn't reflect a lot on her freshman year, when the Panthers won a second straight Catholic League girls basketball championship. Nor does she think much about the past two seasons, when the Panthers struggled to a combined 23-29 record.

No need to dwell on the past when the Panthers are off to a blistering 10-0 start and up to No. 6 in The Sun's Top 20.

With Wednesday's 66-31 win at the Institute of Notre Dame, the Panthers matched their win total for all of last year. They remain the only unbeaten team in the Top 20.

"Sometimes we talk about [the 1994-95 championship season], but we don't really focus on years ago," said Lambert, who along with teammate Danielle Baker played on that title-winning team. "This is a whole different team."

This is not quite the team that won back-to-back Catholic League titles with 20-plus wins each season. That team had four Division I players, but this team has a lot of young, hungry talent.

Coach Jerome Shelton has carried five freshmen on his 12-girl roster each of the previous two seasons. Now, he has seven underclassmen. Four start -- sophomores Shanell Watson (14 points, four assists) and Charity Lee and freshmen Shanika Wallace (11 points, seven rebounds) and Keyonna Mayard -- along with Lambert (11 points, eight rebounds).

"We had a very good freshman class [last year]," said Shelton, "but they had a baptism under fire. We didn't have a lot of time to take them through games [in which] they weren't playing against good teams. We like to play a good schedule, and by the time we get to the Catholic League, all the games are competitive and intense, so they learned a lot real fast."

This season, the Panthers have overcome many of the mistakes that youth and inexperience caused in the past two years.

"I was scared last year," said Watson. "I didn't really know the game. This year, I'm stepping up. I'm scoring more now, and I'm really getting the hang of it."

The Panthers are playing better defense, which helps their offense. They believe they can challenge for the Catholic League title.

"We have a different mentality, and we have a good team chemistry," said Lambert.

Shelton began to see dramatic improvement late last season.

"Most of the games were close," he said, "so we knew we were right there. We expected that this would be the season [in which] we would be able to at least improve upon our previous two years."

The Panthers, who started the season ranked 20th, have certainly done that, proving themselves in two early games against higher-ranked opponents. They beat then-No. 12 Milford Mill, 58-54, on Dec. 5 and, a week later, defeated then-No. 14 Western, 58-52.

The Milford win was only their third game, but Shelton could see the difference.

"We played them last year, and they beat us up pretty good. This year, we got a chance to show we were a better team than last year. At that point, we began to take on a different persona."

Against Western, the Panthers took an 18-point lead, squandered it, and then rallied. The Doves tied at 49, but the Panthers regrouped -- something they probably could not have done a year ago.

"This team has much more character just in terms of being able to handle pressure situations better," said Shelton. "The players are challenging themselves more on the floor to not make the kinds of mistakes we made last year and to stay together under adversity."

The next step is to beat some of the other top Catholic League teams. The Panthers have won two league games but face their first major test tonight vs. No. 8 John Carroll at 6: 30 at the College of Notre Dame.

"This is the second season, right here," said Shelton. "It doesn't matter who we play, the games will be competitive. We've talked about how the non-conference schedule prepared us for what we're about to go through in January and February."

The Panthers know exactly what he's talking about.

"The Catholic League is so different from any other league," said Lambert. "There's more competition . So we have to be ready."

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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