At least one Chicago basketball dynasty continues on intact. In fact, it might be stronger now than ever before.
The Marshall Lady Commandos won their 20th Public League title in 22 years two Mondays ago, then went on to their seventh state championship last weekend in Normal. Coach Dorothy Gaters has compiled a record of 659-71 through 24 seasons, and this 31-1 team was perhaps her strongest, featuring three all-area players: seniors Kourtney Walton and Kimya Murray and the stunningly talented sophomore Cappie Pondexter. They were a team so good and so captivating that I was ashamed never to have seen them before the Public League title game. After that I couldn't get enough of them, tuning in to watch the state semifinals and finals on television Saturday.
Like any great team, they were conscious of the impression they made. From the moment they jogged onto the court at Loyola's Joseph J. Gentile Center for the Public League championship game, the Marshall players seemed cool, collected, and confident. That attitude is evidently instilled in them from the moment they join the program; the Marshall freshman-sophomore squad had won its own Public League crown just before the varsity took the floor, and the youngsters took no prisoners in drubbing Washington 52-33--they dealt out hard fouls on breakaway layups right into the final minute. Marshall's varsity players--whose only loss this year came against a California high school team at a tournament in Ohio--had less to prove, and they showed it. They had the crisp, clean look that accompanies a winning basketball program: uniform Nike shoes and high Nike socks in black or white, depending on personal preference. Underdog Morgan Park, meanwhile, was outfitted in shoes chosen by the individual players, and each added her own motley touches to the green-white-and-red uniform. Maleka Hawkins even accessorized hers with eye-grabbing knee socks in black-and-blue horizontal stripes, making her look the inner-city basketball equivalent to Pippi Longstocking. While Morgan Park ran through the usual lay-in lines in warmups, Marshall ran a three-on-two fast-break drill and then took some unstructured shooting practice. Roshena Jones and Marshalla Johnson even rapped along with "Whoomp! There It Is" on the PA as they waited under the boards for rebounds. Not one Lady Commando showed any sign of nerves.
Marshall had already beaten Morgan Park twice this season in their home-and-home Public League series, both times by convincing margins. The Lady Commandos came out in this game looking to run the Mustangs off the floor. Pondexter, the best and most promising player on the team, took a rebound coast to coast for the first points of the game, knifing through traffic for the layup. Minutes into the contest the score was 6-2, and Morgan Park had the hangdog look of a beaten team.
Marshall's three best players each averaged about 17 points a game this season, and all are striking looking. Guard Murray, a three-point shooting specialist, is short and solidly built. Forward Walton is the opposite in build--tall and slender--and in playing style as well. She is elegant and erect, at times reminiscent of the Bulls' Bob Love, with a strong and accurate wrist-driven shot from the outside. (Most high school girls, even the good ones, launch their long shots from the chest.) Both Walton and Murray sport thoroughly professional tattoos on their shoulders. Pondexter, by contrast, seems a playful pup. Even so, she is the most rounded and advanced player of the three, able to drive to the hoop with a wicked crossover dribble or stop and pop from the outside with equal facility. She also directs the offense under orders from Gaters, who calls out "Cappie!" to get her attention. Having driven for lay-ins on a couple of early possessions, Pondexter pulled up and hit a pair of three-point shots, lifting Marshall to a 13-4 lead with two minutes and 45 seconds left in the first quarter.
Yet if the Lady Commandos expected to prevail just by throwing their sports bras on the court, they had a surprise in store for them. For one thing, Morgan Park had a player to rival any of Marshall's big three, senior Constance Jinks, who kept the Mustangs in the game single-handed early on. Having been stuffed by Walton on the previous possession, she put the ball on the floor and drove past two Marshall players into the lane, where she threw a shot up off her hip and in. Still, she couldn't do it alone, and the score was 15-9 at the quarter. She also got some comeuppance from a couple of wise guys in the front row behind the basket. Jinks wears number 23 and sports Air Jordan sneakers, and one of the guys called out to her with disdain, "Play defense, Michael Jordan." She ignored them.
The only other Morgan Park starter who seemed game was the sub-five-foot point guard Kenietha Shoulder, who emulated Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers with relentless driving, not to mention hair braided in wave patterns. They finally got some help when Hawkins, a junior, came off the bench. If Jinks's other teammates seemed tentative, Hawkins did not. After all, anyone willing to wear black-and-blue striped socks with a green-and-red uniform must be fearless. She nabbed an offensive rebound and put it back up and in, then came down the court pumping her fists and raising her arms up and down to get the crowd involved. She was ferocious, dragging down rebounds and swinging her elbows side to side to clear the area around her. Jinks drove the lane and slipped in a nice, controlled, one-handed layup to make it 23-16, and from there Morgan Park stayed within reach of the lead. Gaters was subbing in fresh players and urging her team to run--bringing in the dour Shikhia Sims to give Pondexter a break handling the ball--but when Gaters called for a pressing defense and a half-court trap Morgan Park beat it easily for a layup. It was 29-23 Marshall at the half.
Sims started the second half for Marshall, as did Hawkins for Morgan Park. Tiffany Scott, a tall, regal-looking sophomore, also came off the bench to open the half for the Mustangs, and she wasn't at all hesitant to put up her shot. Various Morgan Park players threw Walton off her game by pawing her like a bad date, and Murray was simply having an off night. But Morgan Park had no answer for Pondexter, who hit a turnaround jumper from the free-throw line just as easy as could be to make it 37-31. Morgan Park kept scrapping back. Hawkins snuffed Sims on a breakaway layup to trigger a fast-break basket the other way and responded by holding her index finger in the air. Trailing 39-35, Morgan Park had Scott at the line shooting two free throws. But she missed them both, and Sims ran the ball the other way and dished off to Kelia Beachem for a lay-in to trigger a nine-point Marshall run. It was 50-37 at the end of the third quarter and Jinks was on the Morgan Park bench having turned an ankle coming down on a rebound.
Yet Jinks courageously got off the bench and--just like her obvious hero--took over the game offensively. Hawkins, meanwhile, was a dervish on defense, twice blocking shots by Pondexter. She fought Walton to a jump ball with the possession arrow pointing in Morgan Park's direction, then talked some trash in Walton's ear as they trotted down the court. Walton, to her credit, just rolled her eyes. Gaters was urging the Lady Commandos to run, but the Mustangs were doing an excellent job of getting back, thwarting the break, and then turning it the other way, inevitably getting the ball to Jinks, who finished with 26 points. When Gaters finally told Pondexter to slow it down and start running some time off the clock, the crowd--which had been surprisingly small and surprisingly quiet by the standards of the boys' Public League championships, with only about 2,000 in attendance--finally came to life and sided with the underdog, shouting, "De-fense!" A Marshall turnover led to a Morgan Park fast break, and Jinks stopped and popped from the free-throw line to make it 55-52 Marshall with just over two minutes to play. Gaters called a time-out.
Then Pondexter just took over. In the pivotal moment of the game, she missed a shot hard off the back iron but swooped through the lane to grab the rebound and hit the follow on the run to put her team up 57-52. Walton stripped Jinks of the ball, and Pondexter was fouled on the ensuing fast break. She made both free throws--all the Marshall players seemed to be crack foul shooters--to make it 59-52. After a Morgan Park basket, Marshall spread the floor to isolate Pondexter, and shaking her head as if she were Muhammad Ali she drove past the defender and in for a layup. That was it. Murray and Pondexter added pairs of free throws down the stretch and Marshall won 65-54, with Pondexter finishing with a game-high 27.
It was the best basketball game I had seen all season, the established champion against the upstart underdog, scrapping back and forth until the champ proved its mettle at the end, and beautiful, intelligent play on both sides. There was some distress on the Morgan Park bench. After the two squads shook hands, Hawkins tore off her jersey, leaving a green T-shirt, and paced back and forth aimlessly until she sat down and had a quick cry. But she soon pulled herself together and walked off with her teammates. Marshall left the floor proud but not cocky. They'd been thoroughly tested, and battle ready they went downstate to win three straight games for the Illinois championship. Pondexter scored 25 in the quarterfinal victory over Waubonsie Valley. Then Walton, freed from the persistent pawing of the Public League title game, went wild in Saturday's semifinals and finals, scoring 22 in beating suburban Glenbard West in the semis and a championship-game-record 30 in beating Galesburg that night. Marshall had been very businesslike and reined in while claiming the city title. Like the Bulls in winning the conference finals in their glory years, they'd been there before and knew the real work was still ahead of them. When the final game was over and they'd beaten Galesburg 68-56, then they celebrated, running around and hugging one another. Walton, interviewed on TV, said she had simply wanted to win a title for her coach. Gaters hadn't won an Illinois championship since 1993, and Walton surely didn't want to be a Marshall player who never took state. That's the pride that keeps a dynasty intact, and with two more high school seasons ahead of Pondexter and a championship freshman-sophomore team moving up, the Marshall dynasty shows no sign of collapsing anytime soon.