BRANDYWINE – With less than two minutes to go and momentum slowly shifting away from her team, Denai Bowman began a slow dribble to midcourt.
Each step hit the ground at a faster pace until the senior began a full-on sprint towards the rim. Bowman breezed past two defenders and attacked the rim, placing the ball off the backboard and inside the hoop for the converted layup. The home crowd celebrated in delight as Bowman had reached a mark she only eclipsed once this season, the 30-point mark.
“I just try to keep shooting and not let up,” Bowman said, who entered the contest averaging 18.6 points per game. “Just seeing the basket.”
“Denai can do almost anything on a basketball court,” Gwynn Park Head Coach Michael Strother said. “She is an extension of us; she is a coach on the floor. To see her come up from ninth grade to now as a player, it is just amazing.”
The Gywnn Park High School captain gave a complete performance, scoring a game-high 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Combined with an equally impressive 29-point performance by junior Jenae Dublin, the Lady Yellow Jackets finished off their rivals, Largo High School, sweeping their regular season meeting with a 71-58 home win on Feb. 7.
The victory improves Gwynn Park’s winning streak to 12 straight-games and puts them at the top of the county’s 1A/2A/3A standings. The Lady Yellow Jackets (15-3) have yet to lose to a county opponent this season, making them one of the standout favorites in the state playoffs.
Part of their success is their transition game. After an offseason of running and conditioning, the Lady Yellow Jackets are prepared to grab rebounds or turnovers right away and quickly flip them into points. Despite running a high-octane offense, Gwynn Park’s stamina has players prepared to continue their quick pace throughout the game.
“We really wanted to push the tempo,” Strother said. “In the first half, we really pushed the tempo on them, and we capitalized on a lot of transition baskets. It is something that we want to do; it is something the girls really work hard with, and we condition quite a bit.”
Early on, Gwynn Park’s transition game killed Largo with an early 11-3 run with Dublin and Bowman freely trading shots. Following an early timeout called by Head Coach Ayana Ball-Ward, several Lady Lions players were breathing heavily with their hands on their knees. Gwynn Park continued to bury shots, increasing their lead as high as 17 points in the second quarter.
However, Largo (11-8) began to punch back. Junior Vanessa Schwarzmann connected with several long-range field goals, scoring 13 of her team-high 20 points in the second-quarter while bringing in senior teammates Johnnae Mathews and Kayla Watkins-Harvey with quick passes down in the paint.
The pair collected rebounds and scored on several putback attempts while Schwarzmann hit a skyhook jumper as time expired before halftime to decrease their deficit by 14 points.
As the game continued in the third quarter, Watkins-Harvey continued Largo’s aggressive post play, scoring 10 of her final 14 points during the period and reducing Gywnn Park’s lead to eight.
However, the shooting dominance of both Dublin and Bowman was simply too much for Largo. Dublin’s own post presence allowed for quick paint shots while Bowman, a Binghamton University commit, converted several of her unconnected jumpers.
“We were not going to have any pressure on us,” Dublin said. “We were just going to keep our heads up, keep hustling and doing what we did in the first half.”
While Largo still looked poised to come back, going on a quick 6-0 run in the fourth, Bowman took over. The senior attacked the paint and hit back-to-back layups in the final two minutes, solidifying the double-digit victory and the continuation of Gwynn Park’s winning streak.
While the loss stung immediately after the game, the Lady Lions will look to end their regular season on a positive note, receiving Friendly on Feb. 12 before preparing for the playoffs.
“I’m proud of the effort that we made in the second half,” Ball-Ward said. “We made some stops, and they went to their game plan, but this is good building before the playoffs.”
Meanwhile, Gwynn Park celebrated but focused on their championship aspirations more. The last time that the Lady Yellow Jackets won a state title was 2004 and last season, they were close before ultimately falling in the semifinals. While rebounding will be a concern, Strother said his starting-five, with Dublin and Bowman leading the way, will give Gwynn Park its best chance at holding up a trophy in mid-March.
“We are growing every time we play and going up the ladder and not going down,” Bowman said. “We are pushing forward and looking towards going to states.”