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Gateway girls basketball team turns to last year's good luck charm

| Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, 9:33 p.m.
Alisa Jacobson | For The Times Express
Gateway junior guard Elena Merlino (left) and freshman forward Amoni Carter defend against Plum on Dec. 20, 2013.

The Gateway girls basketball team needed to start monkeying around before the Gators could realize just how dangerous they might be.

Throughout last year's run to the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals, Gateway carried around a stuffed animal for good luck. Coach Cornelius Nesbit's daughter eventually took it with her to North Carolina.

But with a Christmas visit to his daughter's house approaching and Gateway having lost three of four games, Nesbit knew what he had to do.

“When you start losing, you start thinking, what's different last year to this year other than the player changes,” Nesbit said. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, the monkey.' ”

Gateway, of course, won its next two games: by 14 over East Stroudsburg South and by seven over Christmas tournament host Altoona.

“The monkey's not going anywhere,” Nesbit deadpanned. “He's going to have to deal with the cold weather.”

While players and coaches talk about the rally monkey as if he's a dribbling, running and jumping member of the team — he has a name, Ralph — there have been a few more tangible reasons for Gateway's recent success.

For one, Jada Epps has blossomed into an elite scorer. A year after averaging 8.3 points in a support role last season, Epps has averaged 13.3 points, 3.4 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 3.4 steals.

Epps was a facilitator last season, but the 5-foot-8 guard has been much more assertive. A perfect example was when she finished with 18 points, six assists and four steals against Altoona.

“I'm shooting more this year,” Epps said. “Last year, I didn't really shoot at all. I just helped other people get open.”

One of those was teammate Morgan Hainsey, who has developed into Gateway's go-to player underneath while also improving her mid-range jumper. Hainsey has contributed 11.4 points, eight rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. She's shooting 50 percent (37 for 74) from the field.

“Her jump shot is pure, so now she's able to be 15 or 16 feet away from the hoop, making big kids come out and have to play her,” Nesbit said. “She can get to the basket. She's become a very big asset for us.”

Epps and Hainsey have helped address the loss of Katey Wilson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during one of Gateway's scrimmages. Wilson was the Gators' (4-3, 1-2) top returning scorer at 9.3 points per game.

But junior London Wade has stepped up by averaging 6.3 points, including double-digit outings during both games of the Altoona Tournament.

Gateway, which has won the past three Section 2-AAAA titles, also has benefited from the contributions of 5-10 junior Alexis Young (5.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and 5-11 sophomore Jasmine Copeland (6.3 rpg).

“We're finally starting to trust one another,” Epps said.

Why now? Hainsey insisted it was a matter of players learning their roles.

Not necessarily a monkey.

“We're getting used to those adjustments,” Hainsey said. “We're starting to be able to go out there and make plays happen no matter what position we end up in.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer at Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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