Randolph-Clay senior Kanekia Washington is one of the big reasons why The Herald No. 1 Lady Red Devils have won 19 of their last 20 games. (Herald file photo)
CUTHBERT — Kanekia Washington was standing in the middle of her teammates after practice Thursday trying to explain the secret to Randolph-Clay’s success. She held up her left hand and spread her fingers, then closed her hand and made a fist, telling the ageless story of how five fingers by themselves are just five fingers — but when you get all five together and make a fist, it makes a difference.
The kids at Randolph-Clay are making a difference.
“When you come together and make a fist it has a lot more impact,’’ said R-C girls coach Jennifer Acree, who told her players about the fist metaphor at the beginning of the season. “I’ve told them that, and they believe it.’’
They all know it by heart today.
They are the fist — a fistful of Lady Red Devils.
And the knockout punch? Well that comes later — they hope — in the state title game. They’ve already knocked down just about everything from early perceptions that they wouldn’t be that good to the latest wave of critics who say this team is overrated,
These kids are deaf to the noise that always seems to come with success, and nothing seems to be able to stop or even bother this determined and talented group that believes in its coach and each other — and believes this could be Randolph-Clay’s year.
The Lady Red Devils are the No. 1-ranked Class A girls team in the Georgia public school state ratings — and have been since the ratings came out four weeks ago. They have also climbed to the top of The Herald’s Fab 5 Poll, which includes 26 schools of all sizes in Southwest Georgia.
They’re 20-2 and have won 19 of their last 20 games, including 10 in a row. But none of that matters to these kids. They want one thing — a state title. One thing is certain: If they win it, they will win it together.
Talk about a 1-2 punch: Just look at the Thornton sisters, Brianna, a 6-foot sophomore, and Kobi, a 6-1 freshman, who is arguably the best young talent in Southwest Georgia.
And Randolph-Clay has the guards to go with the Thornton Towers — three of them who hit the court with passion and desire and enough pride and talent to carry this team in the playoffs. Adriana Blackmon and the Washington twins — Kanekia and Whenekia — are Acree’s senior leaders. They have been playing since they were freshman.
Blackmon started for R-C’s Elite 8 team four years ago, and the Washington twins both started as sophomores
And if you’re looking for a 1-2-3 punch, there may not be a more prolific trio of scorers in all of Georgia. The guards have combined to score 2,983 points. Blackmon has scored 1,133 points, and the twins have poured in the points, too. Kanekia has scored 1,143 points and Whenekia has scored 707.
The seniors believe this is their year.
“The guards have been playing and waiting for this,’’ said Acree, who knew the two Thornton Towers would be coming to play at R-C. “I knew they were coming, and it was tough the last couple of years to make sure the guards were ready for this. They were ready. My assistant coach Genatta Moore has been at Randolph-Clay for 19 years, and she told me we have never had outstanding guards and post play.’’
It is a lethal combination, and it works because no one is selfish. The kids on this team simply don’t care who scores.
“We don’t care about that. Nobody on this team cares who scores. We just want to win,’’ said Blackmon, who is at the heart of why this team plays so well. She is not only a leader on and off the court, but Acree put the pressure on Blackmon last summer when she told the 5-9 forward that everyone calls “Took” that she had to play point guard.
“I knew to get to where we want to be that Took would have to be our point guard,’’ Acree said. “She told me, ‘I can’t play point guard.’ It was like she was rebelling and she didn’t trust her abilities. It was like she didn’t want the ball in her hands.’’
But once Blackmon made up her mind, she became the straw that stirs the drink, finding countless ways to help the Lady Red Devils win games.
“When we beat Carrollton, they were ranked No. 4 in the Class AAAA state poll, and their coach couldn’t stop talking about her,’’ Acree said. “You would have thought she scored 30 points in that game. She scored two points but she had eight assists and she controlled the entire game. She has become beyond what I thought she could be. She’s awesome.’’
It’s that kind of unselfish play that has defined the season. Everyone gets into the act, and anyone on the court can beat you.
The Lady Red Devils have had to win two games this year in the final seconds with inspirational comebacks. Blackmon made a steal and a drive at the buzzer to beat Monroe, 54-52, and Whenekia made a steal with 20 seconds left and Kanekia drilled a 10-footer with 8.3 seconds left to come back and beat Calhoun County.
When Randolph-Clay gets down in a game, no one loses their composure and no one — from Acree to the 11th kid on the squad — doubts the Lady Red Devils will come back. The mindset is the same: “We just think, ‘We got this,’ ” Kanekia said after practice Thursday.
It’s not being cocky or overconfident — it’s just confidence.
“I know my kids,’’ Acree said. “When we are down, I believe we are going to come back and win, and so do they.’’
It’s has taken a while to build that confidence. After a 1-1 start, Acree and the players had a heart-to-heart meeting. All the kids talked, and the coach and the players came to the conclusion things had to change — and fast, because Acree had put together a tough schedule.
“We needed help,’’ Blackmon said of the early meeting. “We came together and hard work and dedication was the key. We worked hard. We wanted to prove people wrong. No one expected us to win. We heard that all the time from people and from people in our own school.’’
Then they just started winning and won nine in a row before losing, 52-49, in the finals of the Carrollton Christmas Tournament to Class AA powerhouse Greater Atlanta Christian.
“I put this schedule together, and I knew we would be tested early,’’ Acree said. “But after we finished the first half at 9-2, I thought this could be a special season. They had that look in their eyes. I saw that look that says, ‘I don’t want to lose.’ They don’t want to lose, and they don’t care who scores. All they care about is winning, winning, winning. Scoring doesn’t matter to them.’’
That’s part of the fist concept, and the kids have embraced it.
“This team is a lot different from last year,’’ guard Jasmine Wilson said. “Last year there were attitudes. Everyone was kind of doing their thing. This year we are a team, and everybody is together.’’
Brianna Thornton then added: “It’s like a family.’’
It could have been a nightmare. It could have been a team of division.
“You knew Kobi was coming in from middle school and all the attention would be on her,’’ Acree said. “I talked to my seniors (Blackmon and the Washington twins) and I told them, ‘If you will take over the ownership of this team, then the rest will follow. They definitely became our leaders I don’t put any pressure on Kobi. She’s a 14-old freshman.’’
Kobi Thornton does lead the team in scoring with 16 points a game, and she has pulled down an average of 10.5 rebounds while blocking an average of three shots a game. She had six blocks against Monroe, and Brianna had three in that game. Brianna averages five points and nine rebounds and a little more than a block per game.
The guards can fill it up. Kanekia is shooting 58 percent from the field and averaging 15 points and four assists, and Blackmon is shooting 53 percent from the field and averaging 12 points and five assists a night. Whenekia is averaging nine points a game and leads the team in 3-pointers. She had nine in one game this season.
It’s that balance that makes Randolph-Clay so tough to beat.
“You may stop one or maybe even two of them, but it’s hard to stop four or five,’’ said Acree, who wishes at times her stars would have monster scoring nights. “It’s a game where people judge you on statistics, and I see these other girls on other teams scoring 30 points. And I know when it comes down to the player of the year in the region, people will look at points. But everyone wants the state championship.’’
Randolph-Clay has three games left before the region tournament, which will be held at Randolph-Clay’s Joe Williams Gym because of the Lady Red Devils’ ranking as the top Class A team in the state.
If they keep that No. 1 ranking and win the region title, the Lady Red Devils would be at home in the first three rounds of the state playoffs and only have to travel to Macon for the state title game.
Acree, who is in her sixth year at Randolph-Clay, has been to the Final Four three times, including twice at Randolph-Clay. Her 2009 team had Herald Player of the Year Destiny Mitchell, who scored more than 2,500 points for the Lady Red Devils and set a school record with a 56-point game in her senior year. But Mitchell’s team was upset by Savannah Christian in the Elite 8, and this is the best team since Acree has had since.
“This journey has been a joy, to see how far this team has come,’’ Acree said. “Destiny was all-world. We had some pieces on that team. But now we have all the pieces.’’
She finished with that statement, but she didn’t make a fist.
She didn’t have to.