WPIAL Girls Basketball Player of the Week — Week ending Dec. 21

Sunday, December 22, 2019 | 7:23 PM

Two years ago, the McKeesport girls basketball program struggled through a 4-17 season.

Last year, the Tigers enjoyed a turnaround with 13 wins, a district postseason berth and victory and a spot in the state playoffs.

With many players back, McKeesport looks to build on that success as it is one of five teams separated by one game in the battle for first place in Section 3-4A.

Leading the way is senior Jhayla Bray, who has been there for the transition from a struggling program to one in the hunt for a section crown.

“Jhayla is definitely our leader,“ 14-year McKeesport coach Eric Smith said. “She brings energy daily to practice, she never misses a practice, she spends extra time in the gym afterwards, she plays extremely hard during the game and she’s our go-to player when we need a bucket. She does everything that we have asked her to do.”

A tough week for McKeesport began when the team dropped its first section game, a 47-40 loss to undefeated Southmoreland. Bray led the way with 25 points.

“Against Southmoreland, she had to assume multiple roles. She was our post player early in the game,” Smith said. “Then our point guard went down with an injury midway through the third. Our backup point guard had four fouls, so Jhayla, who was playing post all game, had to be the point guard. Her versatility was something that stood out to me.”

Her versatility and scoring weren’t the only things that impressed Smith in the loss.

“The other part that was as equally, if not more, impressive was the fact that she had 12 rebounds. What was amazing was that she’s 5-7, and Southmoreland plays five girls that are 6-foot. She still snagged 12 rebounds against them.”

On Friday, McKeesport hit the road and bounced back with a 66-62 triumph at Elizabeth Forward. Bray led the way with 31 points and 22 rebounds.

“We were a little sluggish as EF came out and smacked us in the mouth when they went up as many as 17 points,” Smith said. “However, you could sense that Jhayla was taking over the game. She started out missing some easy shots in the beginning, but then her experience and maturity took over.

“She never gave up or got frustrated. She stayed the course, did a bunch of little things, played great defense and grabbed a ton of boards.”

Smith said Bray’s strength and versatility have been a big part of her success.

“First and foremost, she is in better physical shape this year. Because of that, she is playing more minutes, hitting free throws, finishing around the basket and grabbing rebounds all game.

“Another area she has improved is her mental approach. She takes a physical pounding in games and probably could shoot 20 free throws a game. She would get frustrated when she wouldn’t get calls in the past. She has realized that she can’t control that, and in turn, she is focusing on parts that she can control: finishing around the basket and playing hard every play.”

Honorable mention:

Rachel Haver, Oakland Catholic

Rachel Haver is a freshman who is off to a great start. Oakland Catholic picked up three wins in four days thanks to Haver, who scored 21 in a rout of Latrobe. She scored 16 points in a four-point win over Gateway and finished with 31 in a double-digit victory over Albert Gallatin.

MacKenzie Amalia, Blackhawk

Headed into the holiday break, Blackhawk and Central Valley are tied — as expected — for the top spot in Section 2-4A. The Cougars picked up their first two section wins last week with senior MacKenzie Amalia playing a big part as she scored 20 points in a key win over Quaker Valley and 28 points in a road victory at Hopewell.

Natalie Jasper, Ellis School

Junior Natalie Jasper has been a big part of the Ellis School’s rise to the top of the Section 2-2A standings at the holiday break. In section wins over Brentwood and Springdale last week, Jasper scored 28 points against the Spartans and 20 points vs. the Dynamos as the Tigers improved to 3-0 in the section and 5-1 overall with five consecutive victories.

Previous Trib HSSN Players of the Week:

Week 1 – Kennedie Montue, Plum

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