It's their biggest game of their season, but the Hardin-Jefferson Lady Hawks are on cruise-control.
Facing a feisty Rusk squad Friday night H-J head coach Mike Fogo noticed a calmness after their morning shoot-around.
"This is a real loose group to begin with," said Fogo at Sam Houston State's Johnson Coliseum. "They're bee-bopping around here just waiting for 8 pm to arrive."
The Lady Hawks are trying to get back to San Antonio to avenge last season's state final loss to Argyle, but first they have to get past a Rusk team that comes in with an underwhelming record of 17-12. The Rusk crew are riding a four-game win streak with playoff wins over Huntington (41-36), Lorena (41-36) and Gatesville (68-66).
"They have a real energetic coach (Bre Brooks) who has them playing at just the right time," said Fogo. "With a bunch of their games, they do what they have to do to be in the game at the end. If that means slowing down the game or playing iso (isolation) that's what she will do. We haven't seen a lot of teams adjust to us lately, but we feel pretty good with our matchups if it comes our way."
The H-J "Big Three" of Delbertha Guillory-Smith, Ashlon Jackson, and Makenna Henry should cause major headaches for Rusk along with Karliegh Hensley and Kassi Hardy rounding out a solid supporting cast.
Look for Rusk to stick close to the H-J machine early but dynasties never die young, Hardin-Jefferson will roll in the second half.
PREDICTION: Hardin-Jefferson takes a hammer to the Cinderella shoes of Rusk and pulls away late.
Hardin-Jefferson 67, Rusk 41.
Tonight's winner takes on the Yates vs Fairlield victor Saturday afternoon at 1 pm.
CHECK OUT OTHER GIRLS REGIONAL PREDICTIONS
The Hardin-Jefferson Lady Hawks brought an arsenal of talent into the 2020 season and last year's state final appearance, while impressive, left the team bereft of what could have been. H-J fought a formidable Argyle squad tough throughout the contest before foul trouble and depth ended their season with a 49-41 loss.
Coach Mike Fogo looks towards this season's playoffs with nine returning players, including district heavyweights Delberta Guillory-Smith (Defensive MVP), Ashlon Jackson (Newcomer of the Year), and Makenna Henry (1st Team All-District).
The Lady Hawks are currently ranked #3 in class 4A in the latest Texas Association of Basketball Coaches (TABC) poll.
"We're getting better," said Fogo.
"Right now we're still competing against ourselves. After last year's state final loss on the bus ride home we sat together and put together a schedule that would address what we would need to do to win the state championship this year. We wanted to put our girls in difficult spots."
One agenda point was playing tougher competition in the preseason to gauge weaknesses and to define roles for their solid depth. H-J took on multiple 6A and 5A teams with exceptional results beating larger enrollment schools such as West Brook (71-41), San Antonio Reagan (47-45), Klein Forest (64-20), and Crosby 89-38.
H-J also had a solid win over 4A counterpart and #13 ranked Jasper 70-47.
"Playing against those bigger schools brings with it the challenge of competing with their depth and learning how to play without foul trouble. Their tempo is slower than what we're used to and it forces you out of your comfort zone," said Fogo.
Along with Guillory-Smith and Henry the Lady Hawks also bring senior leadership with Asia Wheeler, Kassi Hardy, and Imrie Collier. Experience will be key in later playoff rounds where on late game decisions will often determine the outcome of winning or losing.
"This years team has an interesting characteristic in that there in not one leader. The freshmen girls lead by effort, the seniors lead by being consistent. It's easier to define roles when your team is consistent."
The Lady Hawks are currently 23-8 and 8-0 in district play and next play at Bridge City tonight.
To listen to a podcast interview with Hardin-Jefferson head girls basketball coach Mike Fogo click on the play button below.