By Dan Stillwell
Register-Herald Sports Writer
Who needs a 6-foot-4 center when you have hustle, smarts and good 3-point shooting?
Apparently, not the Princeton Tigerettes.
Debbie Ball’s scrappy team, small in stature but big on desire to win, is headed to Charleston Thursday to play Logan at 11:15 a.m. in a Class AAA state tournament quarterfinal game at the Charleston Civic Center.
“They know they have to work harder to make up for their size,” Ball says. “Sometimes it might be the smallest one who grabs the rebound.”
Center Rachel Surface is 6-foot even. The other post, Khadija Payne, checks in at just 5-7.
Wing Hannah Preservati is 5-8, while standout guards McKenzie Akers and Marissa Mullins are 5-6 and 5-3, respectively.
But somehow, Princeton won 19 out of 24 games while playing in the tough Mountain State Athletic Conference.
“They have a lot of heart,” Ball said. “It doesn’t matter who they’re playing, they’ll never give up.”
She has another word for Akers, a state player of the year candidate averaging 25.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals a game.
“McKenzie is feisty,” Ball said. “She’s a very competitive person. She really wants to do her best. She doesn’t even want to miss classes.
“It’s probably worrying her because she’ll miss practice for all-state choir this week.”
One of the state’s top players since her sophomore season, Akers has continued to improve her game. She now averages just two turnovers a game, and her 3-point shot is much better.
In fact, Princeton often lives or dies by its outside shooting. Akers, Mullins, Preservati and top sub Jessica Inman can each light it up from beyond the 3-point arc.
The trifecta failed them, in a 68-51 sectional final loss to Greenbrier East. The shot was back, in force, in a 71-66 regional win over George Washington that lifted the Tigerettes into states.
“When we didn’t hit shots against East, it changed their whole outlook,” Ball said. “They got desperate, and you can’t play basketball desperate.
“At GW, even though they got a lead on us, we knew the shots were hitting and we’d be OK. We just kicked it into gear in the second half.”
Mullins and Preservati excel against the odds. Just 5-3 and battling a bad heel, Mullins averages 11.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals per game.
“I’ve never coached a kid like Marissa,” Ball said. “She’s little, but on the court she’s a big person. There isn’t anything going to hold her back. If we’re sinking on the floor, she’s the one who gives us the extra push.”
Preservati flat out plays in pain. She had a knee operation for a torn ACL last summer and promptly tore the ligament again early in the season.
Yet she somehow stays on the floor and averages 6.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals.
“You have to admire Hannah. She has little, if any, ACL left, but she still plays,” Ball said. “She’s sacrificed her leg to finish this year out. To have the stats she has kind of amazes me.”
The posts are contrasts in styles. Surface isn’t fancy — 3 points and 7 rebounds a game — but she knows her role and does it well.
Payne is a guard forced to play underneath. Her terrific athletic ability makes her a matchup nightmare for opponents.
“Rachel comes out every day to play and tries to get better. She knows she’s not a scorer, but she gives you a hundred percent every time she walks on the floor,” Ball said.
“Khadaja is so athletic. Her jumping ability is a little unreal — she was born with cerebal palsy and had to battle that.”
Payne averages 7.2 points, 9 rebounds and 2 steals.
“If she plays good Thursday, we have a better chance of winning. She is our size,” Ball said.
Inman comes off the bench and delivers 3.7 points a game. But that’s deceiving. She’s easily capable of double figures.
“Jessica played travel soccer (instead of basketball) last season, so she has just come into her own right now,” Ball said. “She’s a ballhandler, shooter and very smart on the court.”
Stephanie Lambert (2 points, 2 rebounds per game) and Ashley Culicerto (3.7, 2) round out the rotation. All eight are seniors except for Culicerto, a junior.
The Tigerettes will face a 15-9 Logan team that lost 68-67 to powerhouse Spring Valley in the sectionals, and beat St. Albans 57-46 in the regional.
“I’ve talked to a lot of coaches, and they say Logan has peaked when it was supposed to,” Ball said. “They’re on a roll.
“I don’t know if my team has peaked. I just know they’re different now since we beat GW.”
Ball is in her 30th year as Princeton’s coach. This will be her fifth state tournament.
“We haven’t been past that first game yet,” she said. “I told the girls it’s time we changed that.”
— E-mail: dstillwell@