University City

Backcourt leaders have Mavericks challenging for a state title

This is about more than having just one win last season. This is about a team taking on insurmountable odds and overcoming the giant to whom everyone had already given the state championship before playing the game.

Maybe that is a bit of a stretch, but the story of Mallard Creek girls' basketball has some similarities to that plot.

The Mavericks won a school-record 27 games a season ago and came within two points of playing for a state title.

It was the game before that - a 50-45 victory against previously undefeated Butler - that put Mallard Creek basketball on the map.

"That win gave us respect," said Maverick senior guard Nicole Graham. "When we were able to beat Butler, it showed a lot of people that we are for real. Mallard Creek was always known as a good team before, but now we got many other teams' attention."

Going into the Butler game, said last year's leading scorer Amber Neely, they were nervous but believed they could do it.

"They had one great player in Cierra Burdick, but we were the better team," Neely said. "We always knew we could play with anyone, and that game proved it to everyone."

The Mavericks wound up losing by two points to eventual state champion Southwest Guilford in the semifinals, but they gained confidence and recognition.

A lot has changed since the big win, and now Mallard Creek is ready again to challenge for the conference and state titles. Despite losing eight seniors and five of their top eight scorers, the Mavericks return one of the best backcourts in Charlotte in Neely and Graham.

"It is major having them back. They are seniors, and they have both been in the program for four years," said head coach C.J. Johnson. "They know what to expect, and they can guide some of our younger players."

"They are both tremendous leaders, and the other girls really look up to them."

Neely averaged more than 13 points in each of the past two years and scored in double figures in 28 of 32 games last year. She averaged 2.4 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 2.0 assists last year.

Graham averaged around 11 points per game a season ago and reached double figures in 17 games. Both were all-conference, all-Mecklenburg County and all-Charlotte Observer performers last year.

The two first teamed for the Charlotte Nets AAU team in the eighth grade and have grown accustomed to co-existing in the same backcourt.

"They do a great job of playing together and really know each other's tendencies and where they like to get the ball on the floor," Johnson said. "They have been playing together so long and complement each other so well. They also play such good defense that it leads to great opportunities for us."

Graham said losing the seniors from last year is nothing new for the Mavericks, and especially for Neely and her. "Now it is all on us. We have been waiting for our senior year for a long time and now we have to come through," Graham said. "We have always been asked to score a lot, and that will stay the same.

"But if we struggled last year, one of the seniors would pick us up. Now it falls on us, and we have to score more and be able to pick everyone up."

Neely describes Graham as a good shooter, a great defensive player and someone who always hustles. Graham says Neely is aggressive and never takes plays off.

Sounds like the makings of team leaders.