Jacksonville, NC | March 5, 2013
From the start of preseason practice, Lejeune first-year girls' basketball coach Kevin Popadines had "high hopes" for the Devilpups.
But there are high hopes and then there's winning both the regular-season and Coastal Plains Conference tournament titles as well as going undefeated and earning a trip to Fayetteville for tonight's NCHSAA 1-A East Regional semifinals.
But Lejeune has accomplished all that behind an athletic and aggressive team led by senior Chatori Major, who averaged 31 points in the top-seeded Devilpups' three playoff victories — including 34 in Friday's 58-49 win over James Kenan.
So will Popadines and Co. be nervous when they hit Crown Arena to take on No. 3 seed East Columbus (20-5), with a shot at the regional finals against the Riverside-River Mill Academy winner on the line?
"I don't think we can fully prepare for that," Popadines said of pre-game butterflies. "But at the same I'd rather them enjoy it than be nervous. So I'm trying to preach that as much as I can to embrace it.
"It's an away game for both teams. So nobody else should be any more comfortable than we are. So as long as they come in and realize it's one more basketball game, hopefully we'll approach it the right way."
And Popadines said he didn't feel any undue pressure.
"I'm nervous, but I'm nervous for the girls. I want to see them do well. I want them to feel good about how they do," he said during the regional news conference Monday at Crown Coliseum, which is adjacent to Crown Arena. "The pressure is I want to leave here feeling good how we do, win or lose. So that's the only pressure I feel."
The Devilpups are led by Major, who has already signed with UNC-Asheville. She is averaging 23.2 points a game while 5-foot-10 senior Chryssandra Tatum leads the team in rebounds at 10.1 a game.
But it may be Tatum's defense that is key against the Gators, who generally run more of a half-court, patient attack looking to get the ball down low to 6-0 Lauren Jenkins, who is averaging 16 points and 9 rebounds.
"I was impressed with how patient they are," he said. "They made really smart passes. They are very methodical. It's different than what we've seen this year."
While Tatum has played well all season, and sophomore point guard Nikia Wallace is probably the unsung hero for the Devilpups, Popadines is concerned about not having played a team like the Gators this season.
"That's what makes it a little more difficult (to prepare)," Popadines said. "We haven't seen many patient (teams), specially with a big post like that. But once we get over those initial nerves and if Chryssandra is OK matching up with her (Jenkins), we should be fine."
On defense, the Gators are almost exclusively a zone team, deploying 1-3-1 zone that Popadines said was similar to that used by James Kenan but not quite as spread out but "real, real heavy up top."
Beyond that, the key may be tempo. Lejeune likes to use its athletic ability and get out and run while the Gators want a slower pace.
"I would like to control the tempo," Popadines said. "If we can, I think we'll be on really good shape. So I think getting out and running when we have those chances (will be important) and also being patient against their zone defense is going to be key because there's times when we force a little bit too much and try to make it happen in one pass instead of four or five.
"So if we can take care of that, we should be all right."