North Central girls claim Class 1A title by beating Vermilion Catholic 54-50 _lowres

Advocate file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- North Central's Quaniqua Joseph, right, defends Vermilion Catholic's Leah Camel in the Class 1A final of the Girls Top 28 last season.

Vanessa Taylor couldn’t get over the number of people in attendance for a middle school girls basketball game.

Taylor, who helped coach North Central’s middle school program in addition to her head coaching duties with the high school team, was on hand at Morrow Elementary six years ago when she heard the fuss over then fifth-grader Quaniqua Joseph.

“I kept hearing them call her “Nae’,” Taylor said in reference to Joseph’s nickname, which had already taken hold as a 10-year-old.

“The gym was packed, and I wondered why,” Taylor said. “They said they were there to see her play, and they had been following her since she was small. She was sliding into the bleachers for loose balls and pressing her man full court by herself. I thought that was pretty impressive.”

A year later after the school closed Joseph, whose two older sisters played for Taylor, followed suit and immediately became a starter as a seventh-grader — and has helped the Lady Canes from her point guard position to their fifth straight Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Girls Top 28 Tournament.

Joseph was part of the school’s first Class 1A state championship squad a year ago, leading North Central to a 54-50 victory over Vermilion Catholic.

“There were plenty of times where it was overwhelming,” Joseph said. “Being the smallest one, and being the point guard and having to run and call plays, there was a lot of pressure at times. I’ve learned how to deal with it and as I got older I’ve become accustomed to it.”

Taylor referred to Joseph — now a 5-foot-7 junior — as the “heart and soul” in each of North Central’s runs to the state tournament.

This season’s been no different with No. 2 North Central (27-2) set to face No. 6 Merryville (31-0) in Thursday’s Class 1A state semifinal at 8 p.m. at Southeastern Louisiana’s University Center.

With the graduation of all-state selections in MVP Jazlyn Robertson and Sidney Martin from last season, Joseph, who often deferred to both standouts, has increased her statistical production along with remaining the team’s top perimeter defender.

“There wasn’t as much pressure on me last year because we had older players that were the leaders,” said Joseph, a second-team all-stater last season. “This year I’m the captain and one of the oldest. There was more pressure put on me.”

Considering her background and talent level that usually allowed her to play above her grade level, Joseph’s almost been immune to pressure on the basketball court. She honed her skills in her backyard, playing against either her older sisters or male cousins.

Joseph, whose parents played at now defunct Morrow High School, always displayed advanced skills, making her a natural to become a varsity starter even at 12-years-old.

“It was just in her bloodlines,” Taylor said.

Joseph has evolved into the prototypical all-around player, averaging 15.9 points, a team-high 8.8 rebounds, 6.5 assists and a whopping 7.7 steals that help fuel North Central’s transition game.

Joseph, who has received college interest from Louisiana-Monroe, reached a milestone during the Lady Canes’ 84-37 regional victory over Oberlin with her first quadruple-double with 23 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists and 12 steals.

“When I’m playing I’m determined to win,” Joseph said. “That shocked me. I didn’t realize it until coach mentioned it after the game that I did all that.”