Kennesaw, GA -- Early on, it was evident that Stetson's little engine, Brianti Saunders, was determined to galvanize her Hatters. They pretty much stunk up the floor in their last game, and it was palpable for them not to have a repeat performance.
Kennesaw State's game plan was simple: force Stetson to shoot from the outside. Well, let's just say Saunders didn't get the memo, almost in a flippant manner, she continually sliced and diced through the Owls' howling zone defense.
"It's very frustrating," said Kennesaw State head coach Nitra Perry when discussing Saunders' ability to get in the lane.
And while the Owls were getting excellent looks on the offensive end, they just couldn't get them to fall. And their misses continued to fuel the secondary break for the Hatters, and especially the diminutive freight train named Saunders.
"(Saunders) being aggressive, got other people open," said Hatters guard Aisha Turner, the other star of the night - I'll get to her later. "Once other people got open, like Myka (Johnson-Matthews), once she got open, she was aggressive - she went 5 for 7. So I mean, (it) just started with Bri, and we all feed off of it.
However, as most would expect, the Owls started to adjust and make their own run.
In every game, there is a counter and Kennesaw State had one in Kelly Dulkowski. The 5-foot-8 sharpshooter, whose range seemingly starts when she gets in the parking lot, singlehandedly went on her own personal run, which included three 3s, and it immediately caused Stetson to call a timeout. The look in head coach Lynn Bria's eyes was definitely not PG-13.
However, it was the look in Saunders' eyes, which had the look of "not on my watch." Immediately she checked back into the game, after resting to start the second quarter, and the Hatters responded going on a 9-0 run.
The game went back-and-forth, but Stetson was able to go into halftime with a 31-24 lead. And it was all because of the influence of their the 5-foot-4 point guard in Saunders, who not only was of their top scorer at the half, she also had more rebounds (six) than anyone from both sides.
Once the third quarter began, Kennesaw State stuck with their game plan of forcing Stetson to shoot from the perimeter, and once again, Saunders didn't comply. She continued to gash their zone with deep penetrating drives. And her relentless efforts didn't go unnoticed, as her backcourt teammate, Aisha Turner, really picked up her play.
Her energy and aggressive nature seemed to spearhead her team with a defensive intensity; that seemed to totally discombobulate Kennesaw State. The Owls just couldn't get into anything offensively; it was like everytime they put the ball on the ground, a Hatter was there to knock the ball away.
And when Kennesaw State started to make a late run in the fourth, cutting Stetson's lead from 17 to 3, with 45 seconds left, guess who responded: Saunders and Turner. When these two play like this, they are unassailable.
"She finally she showed up," said a laughing Saunders in reference to Turner. "She played really good. Every time she plays good, we have a good chance of winning."
Turner comes to play
But that aforementioned quote from Saunders, albeit tongue in cheek, is precisely apropos when describing the supremely talented Turner, who sometimes doesn't play up to her prodigious ability. When it comes to Atlantic Sun basketball, there isn't a point guard with the resume' that Turner brought to the table before ever taking a dribble.
See, the 5-foot-7 guard started in the ACC before transferring to Stetson. Turner was also a top rated 4-star point guard coming out of high school. And sometimes, she is what many call in the industry a tease.
Because Turner teases so many with her awe-striking, elite ability, that when she plays up to her potential, she's easily the best point guard in the conference, but at the same time she can be enigmatic. Don't believe me about how good she is? Look at what ESPN had to say about her coming out of high school:
"Johnson-Turner is as close to a Renee Montgomery as we've seen in recent years. She's more of a lead guard than true point guard, with her ability to push in transition looking for the score when the opportunities present themselves. She also can run the show and has great ball skills from the position. A solid defender and vocal leader, only time will tell if the Montgomery comparisons are valid."
Oh, there's more:
"Johnson-Turner is a promising prospect from the point position. She’s an outstanding on-ball defender and solid defensive intensity. Offensively, she does a very good job of running the team and is a solid communicator. Runs the pick and roll with a high rate of success. Great decision maker. Penetrator with the ability to finish. Smart."
I spoke with Turner for about 20 minutes after the game. And it's easy to see and surmise why the coaching staff likes her so much, she's a very pleasant, affable young woman with a very charismatic personality.
"The way Aisha player today is what our team needs to be successful," said Bria. She has clearly shown -- when she wants to --, she can play both ends of the floor at the highest level. She can score inside and out. She can take you off the bounce and hit the three. She's fun to watch when she plays like she did tonight."
"If Esha (Turner) plays like this, we can be the best backcourt in the conference," said Saunders.
Agreed, but this begs the question: Will Aisha Turner keep her end of the deal?