Given the fact she would be without one of her top players most of the upcoming season, University High girls’ basketball coach Bonita Johnson was excited about one development coming out of last summer.

Johnson, also the coach of the Lady Tigers AAU program, witnessed a transformation of sorts during the time junior-to-be forward Destiny Ephrom spent with her, honing her skills against some of the nation’s elite players.

When the time came for a new season and for U-High to begin defense of its Class 3A state championship, Ephrom stood tall amid a deep and talented roster that’s in search of their second straight state crown.

The next stop on that journey is 4:30 p.m. Wednesday when top-seeded U-High (30-2) faces fifth-seeded Jewel Sumner (29-3) in the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Girls Top 28 tournament at Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles.

“She improved her game so much,” Johnson said. “I could tell with AAU team she was getting so much stronger. When things have gone well with her this season, things have gone well with the team as well. She’s one of the major keys.”

For a team recognized for its superlative guard play and overall athleticism, the 5-foot-11 Ephrom has given the Lady Cubs’ interior game a lift to complement their perimeter game.

“From my middle school days to now, I’ve improved a lot,” Ephrom said. “I go up stronger; go straight up with the ball instead of bringing back down. I’m aggressive and strong. I feel like I’m a big part of the team.”

Ephrom, a first-team All-District 7-3A performer a year ago, has increased her contributions to U-High’s success across the board — averaging a team-high 14.1 points and 8.1 rebounds. She also has nearly two steals per game and just over a block per outing.

Ephrom’s numbers spiked during district play with 18 points over a 14-game stretch, and during her team’s past two playoff wins has scored 18 and 13 points.

One of the more ways Ephrom impacts her team is a by-product of her volleyball prowess, where she was a middle blocker for U-High’s Division IV state semifinalist team.

With her deft footwork and quick explosive jumping ability, Ephrom is the perfect candidate atop the Lady Cubs’ full-court pressure that results in slowing down the ball, deflections or steals that are converted into easy layups.

“She puts good ball pressure and with her height that’s been beneficial,” Johnson said. “She’s tall, athletic and can jump, which is where the volleyball comes in. Also being quick enough has helped us a lot.”

Ephrom’s emergence during the season’s first three months as a dependable scorer and defender helped ease some of the scoring burden created by the loss of standout guard Alaine Fisher to a summer knee injury.

While the points piled up, so did the respect factor from opponents who started double-teaming Ephrom in the post to get the ball out of her hands.

“It made me tougher and do more than what I expected to do,” Ephrom said. “I pushed through and got it done.”

The task of trying to limit U-High on the offensive end increased in difficulty with the return of Fisher, whose deadly jump shot alleviated some of the congestion in the lane Ephrom dealt with earlier in the season.

“People have to pick their poison because we have so many girls that are threats,” Johnson said. “Destiny’s has really turned it on. She gives us an inside game and has really blossomed this year.”