LAUREL — It was midway through the second quarter when sophomore Marissa Steel made a move that had the fans at Laurel High School cheering.
With her team leading the visiting Northwestern Wildcats, Steel took the ball and then ducked and dodged around defenders for the layup that put the Spartans up by 16.
“She’s kind of the heart and soul of what we’ve got,” said Laurel Head Coach Michael Hines. “She’s just a sophomore…but she’s the soul of what we do.”
Along with a stifling defensive game plan and clean basketball, plays like that from Steel helped Laurel run away with the game against Northwestern on Jan. 25.
Steel tallied a game-high 18 points against the Wildcats, helping Laurel cruise to a 53-24 victory. Laurel (9-4) has now won three of its last four games and climbed back up to .500 against region opponents with a 4-4 record. Northwestern (2-11) recorded its fifth straight loss.
Despite her team’s recent successes, the past few games have been a struggle for Steel, she said. She had just six points in the Spartans’ 36-32 loss to Parkdale on Jan. 22 and was held scoreless in the first and fourth quarters.
“They’ve been kind of rocky,” Steel said of her performances in recent games. “I don’t want to blame it on anything, but I talked with my coaches and got it together.”
That conversation with her coaches apparently helped, because Steel scored at least four points in three quarters.
“You have to pay attention to her down around the basket,” Hines said. “So now that opens up the outside game for us.”
After Northwestern made the first shot and had the game tied 4-4 in the opening minutes of the match, Laurel finished the quarter with a 12-0 run and held the lead for the rest of the game. That offensive surge was sparked by the Spartans forcing 19 total turnovers in the first half.
Hines said having a strong defense that took possessions away from the Wildcats was the team’s primary goal.
“We thought that if we could make them turn the ball over, we could make some easy baskets,” she said. “It would be easier on us, and that proved to be true.”
Steel said the turnovers gave the team a jumpstart.
The Spartans had six players score in the first half. Despite Northwestern junior Ravin Hatcher’s attempts to get her team back in the game with a 3-pointer, Steel and the Spartans scored 14 points in the second quarter, building a 30-13 lead at the break.
Laurel kept the pressure on Northwestern in the second half, allowing just four of the Wildcats shots to find the bottom of the net. The Spartans did so while keeping the Wildcats away from the free throw line. Northwestern had just four free throw attempts in the game, all of which came in the second half.
“It gives confidence to (the players),” Hines said of playing clean basketball. “It also helps lower our turnovers. We knew we were going to have a lot of turnovers with our style…but when we can keep our turnovers down, it helps.”
Each of Laurel’s players scored at least one basket in the game. Malaika Treadwell finished with 10 points and shot 2-of-4 from the free throw line. Nyla Thomas, Sydney Woodland and Franxine Cooper had four points apiece.
Wildcat standout Felicia Tchougoue had 13 points and shot 75 percent from the free throw line. Hatcher finished the game with five points, while sophomore Delijah Johnson had four.
The Wildcats will return home to host Parkdale on Jan. 29. Laurel will travel to High Point on the same day with hopes of continuing their winning ways.
“We’re starting to focus a little bit,” Hines said. “We’re a young team, and we’re starting to learn how to score. And I think the focus on defense is doing that for us.”