South Xtra: Bar set high for Elizabeth Forward boys basketball

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Elizabeth Forward coach Gerald Grayson has coached basketball long enough to know that talent is not enough to guarantee a winning effort on the court.

No, Grayson is looking for a team that also will display some mental tenacity.

“We have two new players in our program in [6-foot-10 junior center] George Prota and [6-5 senior forward] Jasano Brooks,” said Grayson, who is in his second season with the Warriors but has coached for more than 25 years with stops at McKeesport (head girls coach for 15 years and boys assistant for five) and Duquesne High School (head girls coach). Prota transferred from Serra Catholic, Brooks from Gateway.

“What I need out of these two players is for them to be tough,” Grayson said before a big, 57-56 Class AAA Section 4 win against Thomas Jefferson Monday night. The Warriors have an overall record of 9-1 with a 61-59 loss to Washington in the final of the West Allegheny tournament Saturday night.

“When they decide to be tough, then I feel we can be a better team,” he said. “Right now, we’re at a stand-still because [Prota and Brooks] are at a stand-still.”

Grayson said he’s not interested in excuses.

“I’m 5 feet 3 and I played football at Boise State,” he said. “People said I couldn’t do the job, and I had to prove them wrong. What they are getting from me is that when they figure out how to be mentally tough, we’ll have a good basketball team. Right now, we’re just average.”

In Grayson’s view, to be above-average means the Warriors have to control the boards.

“When you have players who are 6-10 and 6-5, you have to be willing to box out and want the basketball,” he said. “We’re not doing that right now. When we played Steel Valley [a 69-64 victory for the Warriors], they outrebounded us in the first half and were beating us by 15 points going into the second half. We had to fight like crazy to get back. We also struggled in our rebounding against West Mifflin. If we don’t figure out how to rebound, we’re not going very far.”

In the loss to Washington, DeQuay Isbell’s layup with four seconds left earned the Little Prexies a 61-59 victory against the Warriors, who had little time to prepare for Monday’s game against Thomas Jefferson.

Grayson said his players could learn something from two of the players he coached at McKeesport, Swin Cash and Jennifer Hurt.

“Swin Cash was phenomenal when she went after the basketball,” he recalled. “She was ferocious, and so was Jennifer Hurt, who went on to play at Hawaii. Both of them were fanatical on the boards, and they knew that if you can’t rebound, you can’t win.”

In Grayson’s view, however, all is not lost because of the effort provided by three of his senior starters: 6-4 guard JaQuan Davidson, 6-2 guard Matt Bernadowski and 6-4 forward Austin Matta.

“All three of them play lockdown defense,” Grayson said. “JaQuan runs the show at point guard, but that’s not good enough. We need everyone working hard.”

One huge factor helping the Warriors is balance.

“No one is averaging over 11 points a game,” Grayson said. “JaQuan’s right at 11, and Brooks is at about 10. Matta’s about 10.5 and Prota is at 11. Bernadowski is between 9 and 10 a game, so we have a little bit of hope there.”

The Warriors are still trying to find their defensive identity, though.

“We played the 2-3 zone last year because they didn’t quite understand man-to-man,” Grayson said. “Around the third or fourth game this season, they started to get it. I like to use zone and man-to-man, and from what I’ve seen, we’re playing both defenses pretty good. But I feel it can get much better.”

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