Western might lose, but its confident cast is never beaten

On High Schools

High Schools

December 14, 2004|By MILTON KENT

THERE'S PROBABLY a book somewhere that lays out, chapter and verse, how winners and losers are supposed to behave and think after a game.

Winners are to be gracious but confident, while members of the losing team are usually found cowering in a corner, licking their wounds and figuring out what went wrong.

That manuscript apparently hasn't made its way to Western High, where the No. 3 girls basketball team, a 47-44 loser to Holy Cross of Kensington on Friday night, acted anything but beaten afterward.

"We just have to finish. That's all we have to do," said senior center Whitney Cunningham. "I feel as though our program is always getting better. Even when we have our setbacks, it's getting better."

If the players are too callow to grasp how to feel after a loss, then their coach, Donchez Graham, must have kicked himself about the setback, right?

Wrong.

"This game will help us a lot," Graham said. "We'll take the intensity and the lessons that we learned and we'll play that much better. We learned that we can play man-to-man against a tough, physical team and meet their intensity. As long as we play smart and intelligent basketball, we should be fine.

"It was a tough Holy Cross team that we played, one of the toughest teams over in D.C. I think we're a good team, one of the elite teams in the area. We just have to hang the hardware."

You could chalk up the Doves' attitude to arrogance, bravado or just flat-out audacity. More likely, players and coaches in the Western program just don't know very much about how to act after losses because they haven't done very much losing.

This is a program, after all, that has two state championships and nine tournament appearances, not to mention a rafter full of city championship banners.

Players like Dana Johnson and Chanel Wright have gone on to star at the highest levels of women's college basketball, under the previous leadership of legendary coach Breezy Bishop.

That's a heck of a legacy to live up to, and the current players, fresh off a 51-42 loss to Paint Branch in last year's Class 3A state semifinals, say they want to take their place in the school's rich basketball history.

"Because we are Western, we have a target on our back all the time, and we know that," said junior forward Zhondria Benn. "So when we come out, we need to come out to play because every team that we play against is trying to win, just as we are."

Graham, in his third season at Western after serving as an assistant to Wardell Selby at Dunbar, has instilled in the players a sense that their only real competition is with themselves.

"Now, I don't feel like we're chasing anyone else as much as we're chasing our own history," Graham said. "It's hard to [follow] Breezy. Miss Bishop did some incredible things at Western. I'm trying to get the program to that level and it takes time. I think I have a group that can definitely get it done. So I don't mind the pressure."

If Western, which also dropped a 65-60 decision to Theodore Roosevelt, the top-ranked team in Washington on Saturday, is to win its first state title in nine years, Benn and Cunningham will lead the charge.

Cunningham, at 6 feet 3 1/2 , runs the floor well and gives the Doves an inside presence at a time when the focus of the girls' game has shifted to the perimeter.

Meanwhile, Benn is poised to become the next Western superstar, with a blend of inside power and solid perimeter play. The 6-1 junior averaged 16 points and 17 rebounds last season and drew more than a little attention from the gathering of Division I college coaches on hand Friday during the "She Got Game" showcase at Goucher College.

"Zhondria and Whitney have been fantastic," Graham said. "They've stepped into the leadership capacity and they wear it pretty well. I'm very proud of them. They are National Honor Society kids. These are the kids that you want to deal with and I think more stories should be written about the kids who do it on the court and off the court."

There will be plenty written and said about the Doves (1-2), provided they play better than they did Friday, when they looked rattled against Holy Cross' patient offense and zone defense, which appeared to induce Western into taking ill-advised three-pointers relatively early in the possession.

"We're nowhere near [where we want to be]," Graham said. "But I think we're on the right track. It would be something if I told them we're as good as we're going to be in [December]. That should mean that we're going to get the crap beat out of us in March. I told them that this is not a sprint, it's a marathon. The key is to stay healthy and build momentum."

If that happens, the Doves may be poised to back up their strong talk with another championship. And, as they say, it ain't bragging if you can do it.

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