The Pillow Academy girls basketball team might need a bigger bench.
The Mustangs are as deep as ever this season after returning their top nine players, including all five senior starters, from last year’s Academy Overall Tournament championship roster.
“I think we have like 21 players — a lot,” leading scorer Kaylee Jones laughed. “I don’t know how we fit everybody on the bench. People are sitting on the floor.”
Jones, who played over the summer with the Mississippi Jazz AAU program, has made a scoring jump from 14 points per game (ppg) to 18 ppg so far through three games. But Pillow, ranked as the top team in MAIS by Mississippi Gridiron, is still learning that it’s not always easy operating with a target on its back.
The Mustangs (2-1) suffered an early loss to No. 2-ranked Leake Academy, 67-65, before escaping an upset against North Delta last week. Pillow will have to absorb opponents’ best punches this year.
“Last year, at the beginning of our season, it was really rough. We were like 1-5. We started off really bad, so we were the underdogs,” said Caroline Brock, the Mustangs’ No. 2 scorer last year with 10.3 ppg. “This year, it’ll probably be more difficult because people see us as a threat now.”
With only two players taller than 5-foot-9 in the regular rotation, Pillow may not appear very threatening at first glance. But as the lone forward in the starting lineup, Julia Love Lyon has been strong in the post despite any height disadvantages.
“She isn’t that big, but she’s strong and physical,” head coach Durwin Carpenter said of Lyon, who’s coming off a fall season as a defensive stopper for the girls soccer team along with fellow starter Madeline Kelly. “She’s able to hold her ground.”
If Carpenter needs more height, the 27th-year Mustangs veteran coach can turn to Kayla Brown off the bench. In last year’s state semifinals, Pillow avenged a pair of regular-season losses to Simpson with a 48-45 overtime win thanks in large part due to Brown’s defense on opposing star forward T.K. Catchings.
“In Overall, (Brown) stopped one of the best players in the state and got the girl all upset because she was strong,” said Carpenter, the winningest active coach (1,078 wins) in the state.
What the Mustangs lack in size they make up for with speed, shooting and impressive team chemistry.
“I know it’s high expectations, but I think this group of girls will step up and meet the challenge,” said Carpenter. “They come in every day encouraging each other and working hard. We can see them making passes and doing things because they know exactly what each other are doing. They know how they’re going to react in certain situations and it helps us as a team.”
Having Jones at the helm of the offense helps. The senior guard comes from a basketball family — both parents played at Pillow and her dad, Warren, walked on at Mississippi State — and she has unsurprisingly developed a high basketball IQ sharpened by countless hours in the gym.
“She has spent so many hours in the gym just about every day of the week,” Carpenter said of Jones. “She’s improved tremendously. But love of the game is a lot of it. Her daddy was a great player, and he spends a lot of time working with her, going to the gym with her, shooting and playing. That’s what makes great players, is living in the gym. We have a lot of our girls coming in, but Kaylee has probably spent more time than anyone else.”
• Contact Riley Overend at 581-7237 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @OverendOut on Twitter.