Camp Director John Waring hatched an idea to bring the best AAU programs together in one weekend event. Three years later, the result was the Best of the Midwest Invitational in Geneva, Ill.
Fourteen teams from six midwestern states played four games over the two days of the invitational, providing them with a four-game litmus test of their skills against teams stocked full of Division I talent.
Seven teams came from Illinois, including the Illinois Pacesetters, Full Package, Chicago Flames, Chicago Hoops Express I and II, Illinois Wildcats and IL Lady Lightning. Representing Indiana were the Indiana's Finest 16s and Mohr Magic 16s. Ohio also had two teams, 17s and 15s teams from the Queen City Jaguars program. And Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota were represented respectively by Iowa Elite, the Michigan Belles and North Tartan 16s.
Action ran simultaneously on three, and sometimes four courts, with a well placed chair giving you a view of two games. The games were 18 minute halves and two officials were assigned to each game.
Upon entering the gym I see a girl fly through the air and bang a ball off the back of the rim. A missed dunk, but not by much. It was an instant reminder of how far the girls game has come. The player was 5'11 Tudy Reed who is headed for Rutgers. Yes, 5'11. Sure 6'4 Candace Parker can dunk. Sure 6'5 Amber Harris can dunk. Yet neither have the springs of Reed. If they did, they'd have to wear helmets.
Over on Court 1 was the matchup I was looking for -- Indiana's Finest 16s against Chicago Hoops Express I. To call the matchup a David vs. Goliath matchup would not be fair to Indiana's Finest. The Finest rarely loses. Yet on paper, all but one of CHE's players graduate in the class of 2004. The one that doesn't is junior Andrea Bankhead, a 5'6 guard from Proviso West HS (IL). In contrast, the Finest lacks a senior on the team. It is a balanced team of five juniors and five sophomores. Experience? Age-wise you would have to give the edge to CHE.
CHE's roster is made up of guards Elyse Sanchez (5'6, St. Benedict), Andrea Bankhead (5'6, Proviso West), Tiffany Hudson (5'7, Naperville Central) and Chandra Smith (5'8, Benet Academy). Forwards include Janese Banks (5'10, Ben Davis), Shari' Welton (5'11, Thornwood), Brittanie Taylor James (6'0, Neuqua Valley), Thea Rogers (5'11, Oak Park) and Amy Hunkler (6'0, Benet Academy). And maintaining the post are centers Michelle LaHam (6'1, Naperville North) and Lashawn Johnson (6'2, Harlan).
Indiana's Finest (IF) roster includes a comparatively taller lineup of forwards and guards. Guards include Porchia Green (5'8, Arlington), Amanda Stull (5'9, Rushville), Audrey McDonald (5'9, Kokomo) and Lori Whitaker (5'9, Bloomington North). The rest of the team is made up of forwards, including Whitney Thomas (6'0, Bloomington North), 6'1 Maria Olsthoorn (6'1, Castle), Stephanie Ford (6'3, Franklin Central), Laura Bugher (6'1, Lutheran) and Cassie Kerns (6'3, Valparaiso).
This game looked to be headed for a blowout victory in favor of the Finest, when they ran to a 31-11 lead in the first half. CHE is a breaking team, almost like they run like their lives depended on it. They have a couple presses that are very effective, and partial credit for the game not getting way out of hand goes to the pressure they began to put together in the middle of the first half. It started working, along with a nasty two guard trap over the halfcourt line. Their guards are very capable. IF really works the half court, but you can't call them a stalling team. Their ball movement is crisp and they have a legit post player in Kerns. Once Kerns gets the ball, she's very efficient. The Finest will push the break when it is there, and the main difference I saw in this matchup was CHE's determination to finish even bad breaks, while the Finest floated shooters for the outlet off the break is things broke down. CHE crashes most everyone on the boards, taking advantage of their strong guards and forwards. Once CHE gets their trap clicking, then turnovers and fastbreak points begin to mount. CHE ran off nine straight points at the end of the first half to cut the score to 31-20.
By the middle of the second half, CHE had tied the game, taking advantage of some really sloppy passing from IF. You had the feeling CHE had the momentum to continue to pull away, but the game remained close the rest of the way. CHE took a one point lead with 4:00 remaining, which was quickly erased by IF's Audrey McDonald on a fast break layup. CHE's Janese Banks was fouled at the other end, but failed to convert either freethrow. Coming back down, Whitney Thomas got the ball down low and did a sweet pivot, but lost herself and went too far underneath the basket. She grazed the bottom of the backboard on the shot attempt. But McDonald continued to pace IF, getting the ball back on a turnover and hitting a fastbreak layup and getting fouled in the process. She converted, pushing the score to 47-45 in favor of IF. IF's Porchia Green stole the ball again, and was fouled by Banks. Two freethrows gave IF a four point lead. IF got another chance to run with Thomas leading the break and dumping to Kerns who missed the short hook in the lane.
You could say Audrey McDonald was a spark plug for IF in the final five minutes. CHE's only junior, Andrea Bankhead, filled the same role for CHE. She was fouled on a drive and hit both her freethrows (one waved off for a lane violation). McDonald was controlling the tempo for IF, bringing the ball upcourt while Porchia Green was playing the off-guard. After two more made freethrows by Green, CHE came down against a sagging zone. And for the second time, Shari Welton snuck up on the left baseline and hit a jumper in the coverage. IF would move the lead back to four points with 16 seconds left on a McDonald to Green drive. Banks rimmed out a three-pointer for CHE with four seconds left, but Andrea Bankhead would hit a deep two at the buzzer to come up just short.
Final: Indiana's Finest 54 - Chicago Hoops Express 52.
More to come, including more game summaries and some player evaluations.