Thursday, June 5, 2014

Coach-ability Works Wonders For Ossining's Knowles

Ossining girls basketball coach Dan Ricci can lecture for hours on the monster junior season of Jalay Knowles, a constant double-double threat.

Hey, Ricci does have a fair share of commendable performances to reference.

There is Knowles' thorough abuse of Kingston High, the state regional foe on whom she dropped 42 points and tore down 20 rebounds during a 77-47 pounding.

Then there's Knowles 23-point, seven-rebound, seven-steal MVP game in Ossining's 76-49 Section 1/Class AA championship romp of Mahopac.

The physical 6-foot center got into the lane, piled up jumpers and stretched out the Indians with a pair of 3-pointers. She was pick-pocketing guards, supplying on-the-ball pressure and grappling for 50-50 balls until the final two minutes, when Ricci and Mahopac coach Chuck Scozzafava emptied out their benches.

There's also a 23-point, 13-board masterwork against Archbishop Molloy, when Knowles was rendered uncontainable in the paint.

Yet what strikes Ricci as Knowles' purest, character-defining moment was actually her least memorable game.

It was against St. Anthony's in the NY federation semifinals. Knowles was negated by four first-half fouls, scored a season-low four points, and ended up fouling out with 5:30 remaining in the fourth quarter.

With their best player relegated to the role of spectator, Ossining (which trailed by as many as 18 in the second half) forced overtime and pulled off an improbable 85-79 victory.

Knowles savored every minute of it, cheering and serving as de facto assistant coach during Ossining's wild comeback.

"She didn't get frustrated," Ricci recalled.

"Her body language didn't sloop when she was on the bench. I was in her face, screaming at her and she didn't react."

That level of composure and coach-ability, an immeasurable intangible, helped solidify Knowles' offer from University of Hartford head coach Jennifer Rizzoti.

"(Rizzoti) loved the way Jalay supported her teammates when she came out (against St. Anthony's)" Ricci said.

"That was the last straw of it, when (Rizzoti) made her decision to offer her. It was a nice compliment to our program, but also it's something I've told our kids all along. It's not all about putting the ball in the basket and points. You're looking for character. That's what (Hartford) found when they were watching Jalay in that atmosphere."

Hartford and Monmouth are now the front-runners for Knowles, who has entertained interest from seven Division-I programs.

Central Connecticut is jockeying for a front position in Knowles' recruitment process, trying to persuade her at the same pace.

Fordham, which has Section 1 representation with Emily Tapio (Brewster) and Liz Milner (Haldane), has also expressed interest. Ricci said Hartford is currently showing the most love.

Ossining is forever synonymous with girls basketball prosperity because of Saniya Chong, a former All-American and an all-empowering buckets-in-clusters scorer now entering her sophomore season at UConn.

Remember, the Pride would have had four Division I-bound players, albeit Destini Walker and beyond-her-years guard Andra Espinoza-Hunter bolted after promising seasons.

Walker, who has surging Division-I interest, now stars at Heritage High School in Lynchurg, Va.

Espinoza-Hunter transferred to Blair Academy (NJ). Both played under Ricci as eighth graders.

Losing those two did nothing to minimize the program's sky-high expectations. The Pride have captured back-to-back state championships.

They've developed another hotly-pursued prospect in Shadeen Samuels.

Samuels, who went off for 31 points in Ossining's 74-59 state title victory over Cicero North (Syracuse) and authored a 23-point fourth quarter during an 81-66 regular season win over Greeley, has interest from countless programs.

 Louisville, which hounded Chong throughout her recruiting process, is one of Samuels' several Division-I suitors.

Bench depth, 94 feet of sustained pressure and four quarters of sheer relentlessness has cemented Ossining's powerhouse status.

Expect much of the same.

Avoiding the selfishness and disorganization that tends to sully the AAU scene, Ricci keeps the team together for various summer tournaments. The grind starts with Spooky Nook Sports' Blue Chip Basketball Camp in Lancaster, Pa.

The year-round play is what strengthens the bond, allowing Ossining to master the meshing game.

"We have a JV team that does the same thing," said Ricci.

 "The continuity is there. We don't get any jealousies about who's getting more shots."