By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
For the Langston Hughes girls, Tuesday night’s 49-38 win over Luella was far from a work of art, like the literary masterpieces created by the school’s namesake. But it was good enough to add another game to the Panthers’ historic season.
The first round state playoff win was the first in the program’s four-year history in the team’s first state playoff appearance. It comes on the heels of Hughes’ first 20-win season, its first regular season region title and first region tournament title.
“I’m so proud of this team, from how far we’ve come in four years,” said Panther head coach Borato Broughton, the team’s first head coach. He served as an assistant at two south Fulton schools – Banneker under Paul Bridges and Westlake under Hilda Hankerson – for several years before starting the Hughes program. “I’m so grateful to Paul Bridges and Hilda Hankerson for what they did for me. This win and this whole season shows that hard work pays off.”
And the Panthers (23-2) had to work hard for the win. Even though the game looked like a mismatch on paper, Luella (12-12) hung around all night.
“We were just too anxious. We’ve played much better than we did tonight,” Broughton said. “We kept telling them to calm down, run our sets and do what we do. A lot of times, we didn’t do that tonight.”
But Luella could not take advantage of the Panthers’ off night and pull an upset. The Lions committed 18 turnovers and were an abysmal 4-of-17 from the free throw line.
“I think we learned that you have to do all the little things right if you want to win,” said Luella head coach Michelle Smith. “We played hard, but you have to do the little things right like box out and hit your free throws.”
Luella’s woes began early as the Lions committed five turnovers in the first quarter before scoring a point, allowing Hughes to build a 7-0 lead. But the Panthers’ offense sputtered and Luella went on an 8-4 run to close the gap to 11-8, after a bucket by guard Naya Martin late in the period.
Luella pulled within two midway through the second quarter, 18-16, after two free throws by Carrington Johnson with four minutes left until the half. To make matters worse for Hughes, two of the Panther’s post players, seniors Kayla McCray and Jazmin Williams, were on the bench with three fouls apiece.
But that’s when three of the team’s key players stepped up. Senior Tia Jones knocked down back-to-back three-pointers, sophomore Kendricka Glover knocked down two shots while holding Luella’s top player – junior Brianna Moore – scoreless for the final six minutes of the half, and senior forward Brianca Caldwell was a beast on the offensive glass. Her offensive rebound and put-back at the end of the quarter capped a 12-3 run to give Hughes a 30-19 lead at the half.
Luella would get no closer than five points the rest of the way.
“Tia has been a pleasant surprise for us,” Broughton said of Jones, who moved into the Hughes attendance zone with her family from Grand Rapids, Mich. “She has such a high basketball IQ.
“Every team needs a Kendricka Glover,” said Broughton. Glover led all scorers with 17 points. “She does it all for us. She hit some shots and she shut [Moore] down.”
“Brianca, I’m so proud of her from how far she has come in four years,” Broughton said of his senior captain, who finished with just five points, but also had 12 rebounds – 5 of them offensive – and two blocks. “She’s improved so much. I told her if she trusted us and kept working hard, she would be successful, and she has.”
Indeed, Caldwell’s story is the same as the Panther program, which swept traditional power and community rival Westlake for the first time this season. Westlake lost its first round game, 53-51, to Newton County.
“It just validates all of our hard work,” Broughton said. “All the camps, practices, all the sprints. All of it is paying off. We want to let people know there is another top program in south Fulton [County].”
Luella (38) – Brianna Moore 14, Carrington Johnson 7, Shantay Baldwin 6, Naya Martin 6, Dionna Thomas 5.
Langston Hughes (49) – Kendrika Glover 17, Tia Jones 10, Kennye Simms 7, Briunca Caldwell 5, Jazmin Williams 3, Latreva Wilson 3, Jacquece Alston 2, Kayla McCray 1, Sitaraiya Nelloms 1.