The first thing you need to understand is that Hannah Spitzley is a very good defensive player.
The 5-foot-11 junior from Pewamo-Westphalia has already committed to Western Michigan.
P-W’s last two seasons were ended in the Class C state tournament by final and semifinal losses, respectively, to Edison Public School Academy (Detroit), led by 6-foot-3 Rickea Jackson.
This season, the teams met in a regular season game and Spitzley was overcome by a feeling of helplessness as she tried to defend Jackson.
“I kind of knew what to expect because I guarded her the last two years,” Spitzley said. “Obviously, she’s gotten better every year. It was hard to know what she was going to do best this year.”
On to this year.
The first time down the court, Jackson had the ball on the wing just inside the 3-point line and dribbled through her legs and hit a step-back 3-point shot.
On Edison’s second possession, she was outside the 3-point line when she used a Steph Curry-like shoulder shimmy as she did an in-and-out dribble with a crossover move before hitting another outside shot.
Later in the quarter, she drove to the basket and scored on a finger roll.
A finger roll!
Spitzley was flabbergasted.
“She’s extended her range so she can shoot farther out,” Spitzley said. “It’s hard to guard all the way out there and guard the drive at the same time. She was never bad and she’s just going to keep getting better and better and better.”
Jackson, who signed with No. 6 Mississippi State, was recently named to play in the McDonald’s All-America game, is ranked the No. 9 player in the country by ESPN and is the leading contender for the Michigan Miss Basketball award.
But more than that, she is the best player in the state.
You can go from Flint Northern’s McGee twins — Pamela and Paula, who won national championship at USC in 1983 and ’84 — to Flint Northwestern’s Tonya Edwards, Plymouth Salem’s Dena Head, Detroit De Porres’ Daedra Charlesand Birmingham Detroit Country Day’s Peggy Evans, who all won national championships at Tennessee.
You can go back to the mid-1970’s to Marine City’s Doreen Grote, who helped Delta State win national championships, to just a few years ago when Country Day’s Aerial Powers and Freeland’s Tori Jankoska earned All-America honors at Michigan State.
They were all terrific high school players, but they weren’t Jackson.
This season Jackson, who is averaging 22.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists, seems to have made a quantum leap in improvement and it can be traced to one of the worst moments of her basketball life.
It came at last summer’s USA Basketball U17 World Cup trials, which was a soul-crushing experience.
Two years ago, Jackson had no problem with being cut by USA Basketball. She had flaws in her game and she realized she didn’t measure up to some of the other players.
But this year was a different story. She felt she was playing the best basketball of her life and she was destroyed when left off the 12-player team after the final cut.
She barely remembers what she was told when she and the other six finalists were trimmed from the roster.
“It kind of gets me emotional when I talk about it because I know I should have been on that team,” she said in a hushed tone. “I worked my butt off each and every day. That was literally the most consistent I have ever been.
“To work that hard and not make it is heartbreaking.
“I was sobbing like a baby.”
When she returned home, Jackson deleted all of her social media and stayed in her room for a few days.
But then she returned to the gym with Edison coach Monique Brown and prepared for this season with a vengeance.
Edison won the past two Class C state championships and Jackson was clearly the best player on the floor both times.
But if there was something lacking in her game, it was her perimeter shooting. She took care of that over the summer.
“That’s something I had to improve on,” Jackson said. “In the gym, I shoot tons of shots and most of the time it goes in. I didn’t have the confidence to shoot that shot in the game. Coach Brown would always get on me to start shooting that shot in the game.”
When she was in the eighth grade, Jackson was 5-foot-10 and was most comfortable playing in the post. Brown encouraged her to expand her game or she would wind up being a mid-major post player if she didn’t get any taller.
Part of the expansion of her game was to become confident taking 3-point shots.
“I’ve been preaching that and driving that in her brain,” Brown said. “Two years ago she just didn’t have the confidence. I told her she just had to shoot the shot because everyone is closing the middle up.”
Another aspect Jackson has improved on was ball handling. In previous years, she would pull down a defensive rebound and look to pass to a guard. Now she grabs that rebound and takes off down the court on a coast-to-coast journey with the ball.
“I never had the courage to dribble down the court,” she said. “I used to be so scared to dribble because I never wanted to turn it over or bounce it off my knee.”
In retrospect, perhaps the biggest thing lacking in Jackson’s game was self-confidence.
Despite earning first-team all-state honors as a sophomore and a spot on the Dream Team last season, Jackson never thought of herself as an elite player.
“I honestly did not feel that way,” she said. “I always felt like I was an average player. Everybody would say I’m such a great player and I was ranked this high. I didn’t feel it. I didn’t have the confidence.
“I felt I could do so much better, but I was holding myself back because I wasn’t that confident in myself until USA Basketball trials last year.”