Brittney Sykes is all too aware that penetrating the lane is not meant for the faint of heart nor the fragile of body.
While the University star uses her sleek 5-9 frame like a master craftsmen in terms of driving to the hoop, she has also come to grips that, at times, it make come with a price. So, when Sykes crashed to the floor in the third quarter while challenging to get to the rim off the dribble, she needed a few minutes to regain her wits before making it abundantly clear you can knock her down but you can’t knock her out.
“You can’t be scared,” Sykes explained of the perils that accompany steering inside the paint. “I knew I was going to go down hard. So, when I went to the trainer, he asked me if I wanted to sit out. I said no because my team needed me. The game was still too close and Weequahic wasn’t giving up.”
After a just a few minutes on the bench spent regaining her wits, Sykes returned the to floor and on her first chance to revisit her favorite place to travel, wasted no time slipping back into attack mode.
Her quick, hard drive along the baseline was completed with a delicate reverse layup off the glass midway through the third quarter that stabilized University and established a comfortable cushion en route to a 56-43 victory over Weequahic on Friday in the Newark Public Schools Tournament championship at Essex County College in Newark.
“A lot of teams want to get physical with me because I’m not that big,” Sykes said, whose bucket upon re-entering staked University to a 37-23 cushion. “It’s not about the size but about the size of your heart. I had enough to go back out there. To me, my team is my heart and I know that they needed me.”
Sykes contributed 12 points prior to her spill but elevated her game, both literally and figuratively, over the balance of the contest. She struck for six quick points, all off scintillating dribble drives and hops to the hoop, with the last converted off her own steal to give University (3-2) a commanding 43-28 lead with 2:51 still left in the third.
When it was over, Sykes accounted for 25 points, nine rebounds, four assists and five steals to wrap up tournament MVP honors.
For much of the first half, the Syracuse-bound guard was content to get others involved, feeding Brittany Taylor for a foul-line jumper and Taylor Trotman on a cut for a layup as University built a 14-12 lead in the first quarter.
But, it was her willingness to put the ball on the floor and venture into the lane that opened things up for University in the second quarter. She got underneath for a layup to start the stanza, dropped in a teardrop pull-up and subsequent free throw at the 4:46 mark and nailed a leaner two minutes shy of intermission to match the Phoenix largest lead to that point at 28-17.
“Brittney is a team player and gets everybody involved,” said Taylor, who had seven points, all before halftime. “She attacks the basket and she’ll find you if your open.”
Janeera Hunter topped Weequahic (3-2), which caused University fits in the first half with its tough 2-3 zone and balance on offense, with 10 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Five different players provided at least a bucket in the initial eight minutes, keyed by four points from Najera McCloud.
“We were playing the wings,” Weequahic coach Amira Baraka noted of his team’s defensive intentions. “They made an adjustment and kept feeding the back door on the baseline and they got us with that. I tried to make some adjustments at halftime, but Brittney was too much.
“It’s early in the season and we only lost by 13 points. That is a big improvement from the last time we played them,” added Baraka, whose squad bowed to University, 62-31, a year ago in the Newark Public Schools Tournament semifinals. “It’s a step up and something we hope to build off of.”
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner