By ROB WITHAM
They’re young, feisty, have some growing confidence, and, after Monday night, two wins in three attempts early in the season. They are the new look Atlee Raiders, who turned an early deficit into a double digit lead they maintained all game long in a 65-51 victory at J.R. Tucker in Western Henrico.
“This young team needs confidence. They’ve got to learn how to win, so two out of three, not bad for this group,” noted Atlee head coach Michael Rawlings, reconfiguring his team after the graduation of several players, most notably 1,000 point scorer, and the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots, Alyse Armentrout.
The Raider reboot is led by junior Aya Youssef, who scored 11 of her 12 points in the first half. Her three-point play with 2:51 left in the first quarter kick started an 14-2 run to turn an 8-7 J.R. Tucker lead into a 21-10 Atlee advantage after one period. A balanced scoring attack helped the Raiders take over, as Youssef, Khari Rucker, and Kayla Maxson all scored five points in the opening frame.
Atlee poured it on, scoring seven points in the first 71 seconds of the second quarter to add to their lead, suddenly 28-10. It began a stretch of nearly three quarters where the Tigers fought valiantly to cut into the deficit, and the Raiders, as Rawlings said they needed to do, learning how to win. The Tigers scored the last six points of the first half to cut the halftime margin to fourteen at 40-26.
The Tigers’ best chance to get back into the game came midway through the third quarter during a frenetic sequence that saw a flurry of turnovers, fouls, missed shots and held balls. After J.R. Tucker scored four quick points, Rawlings called a strategic timeout with 3:43 left in the third to calm things down. The Raiders responded, bending, but never breaking, holding an eleven point lead after three quarters.
Then Nada Youssef, one of only three seniors on the team, stepped up her game on both ends, her key play a putback shot that seemingly had no chance, but found nothing but net, to put Atlee back up by 13 at 55-42. Later, freshman Kelly Ayer put the finishing touches on the victory, exploding for nine points in a just over a minute of action. Her three-point play helped Atlee match its biggest lead at 20 points at 64-44 with just 2:51 to go. Ayer finished with 18 points to lead Atlee, while Maxson scored 14 and Rucker ended with ten.
Ayer showed that, although one of the shortest players on the court, she has no fear of going into the paint and fight for rebounds, a key figure in extending possessions and limiting the Tigers to one shot on several occasions. In addition to helping on pressure defense up top, Ayer was all over the court.
“Not only are we young, but we’re short, so rebounding is our challenge,” Rawlings noted. “What I talk more about (Kelly) is about her basketball IQ, it’s pretty good for a ninth grader. She has the mentality of an eleventh grader, like she’s been here before.”
Atlee will be busy over Winter Break, traveling to both Hermitage Monday and to Lee-Davis Tuesday to make up a game postponed last Friday night by snow. They will face more opportunities to gel, grow, and prepare for what they hope will be a season that may surprise some, but not themselves.