Denham Springs uses huge third-quarter rally to trip Zachary _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN OUBRE -- Denham coach Shelly Laprarie.

Shelly Laprarie is not a chemistry teacher by trade. But the Denham Springs girls basketball coach knows what a team that has chemistry looks like.

So Laprarie held a pivotal team meeting after DSHS failed to make the playoffs last spring.

“We were playing basically a JV squad and five sophomores, so it was extremely tough,” Laprarie said. “You could see the talent and potential was there, but we never could get it to gel the way we needed it to.

“That was frustrating and it was a big thing we talked about. I told them they were going to have to work harder than they ever worked and we had to find the chemistry to put it all together.”

The Yellow Jackets got the message and acted on it in a big way. Fifth-seeded Denham Springs (29-3) meets No. 1 Mandeville (30-1) in a Class 5A semifinal at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday to close out the first day of the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Girls Top 28 tournament.

Action begins at 2:30 p.m. with two Class C semifinals. The other 5A semifinal — third-seeded Natchitoches Central (26-7) vs. No. 2 Mount Carmel Academy (27-6) is scheduled for 6 p.m. The five-day tourney runs through Saturday at Southeastern Louisiana’s University Center in Hammond.

Not making the playoffs isn’t a big deal for some programs. For Denham Springs it is. People can’t remember the last time the girls basketball team didn’t make the playoffs. They can count 10 appearances in the tourney era.

The year before, the Yellow Jackets advanced to the semifinals, losing 70-52 to eventual state champion Mount Carmel. Post player Tremeeka Spikes and guard Caroline Taylor both played in that semifinal loss.

A semifinal loss in 2014 and not making the playoffs in 2015 provides motivation. All the Denham Springs players have to do is walk into the lobby of the school’s Hornsby Gym to find more.

Sitting in the trophy case is the large, four-post trophy with a huge golden basketball on top. It’s the Class 5A championship trophy the Yellow Jackets won in 1996. A team led by future LSU star Katrina Hibbert was 37-0 and beat nationally ranked Southwood-Shreveport to win the title.

This Denham Springs team isn’t about ornate trophies, though it wouldn’t mind winning one. These Yellow Jackets are about balance and yes, about chemistry built during a summer of team camps at Copiah-Lincoln Community College, SLU and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Spikes, a 5-foot-10 junior post player, averages 16 points and nine rebounds a game. Lexi McMorris (5-6) is next with a 13.0 average, while Taylor (5-6) adds 11.0 Laprarie plays eight players frequently. Another post player, Maia Robinson, has been a key contributor to playoff wins over Pineville and fourth-seeded Barbe.

“Defense is a big part of what we do,” Laprarie said. “I always ask them which player for the other team do we need to deny or take away and they’ll tell me.

“I’ve turned that around and asked which player for us would the other team take away. That’s a tough one to answer because if the defense takes one thing away or if somebody has an off night, somebody else is always there to pick up the slack.”

McMorris, who sat out last year after transferring from Walker, is the lone senior.

“When I sat on the bench last year I got to watch the offense and defense,” McMorris said. “I saw openings where we could have gotten steals and other things you can’t always see when you’re on the court. I learned from that and when we started working last summer I knew what to expect and what we needed to do.”

In Mandeville, the Yellow Jackets face their toughest opponent to date. Guard Elise Riley is considered to be one of the top 5A players and is averaging 22.6 points, 3.4 assists and 2.7 steals a game. Shantel Short adds 12.5 points per game.

The two teams did meet in a summer camp game at Copiah and Denham Springs won a shot at the buzzer. Laprarie notes that the Skippers may not have had all their players at the camp.

“Mandeville is a sound team,” Laprarie said. “(Riley) is an outstanding player. They’re not the kind of team that beats themselves.

“I think our balance works in our favor. We can’t beat ourselves and we have to be able to handle that atmosphere. It’s what you expect in a semifinal.”