The UIL girls basketball playoffs begin Monday and area coaches are trying to figure a formula that will lead to Austin for the state tournament.
Some coaches have more ingredients to work with than others, though. While a hot hand from the perimeter can win a couple of games, a dominating center can take over a string of games and carry a team to Austin.
No other player in the area epitomizes how an imposing presence in the paint can bring a team together more than Arlington Lamar's Janay Keys. The 6-foot-1 junior center missed the first half of the season while recovering from a knee injury.
The Vikings (22-12) were already competitive thanks to speedy point guard Brooke Grant spreading the ball around between three other guards, all of whom averaged in double figures. Since Keys returned to the lineup during the holiday break, Lamar has simply been nasty.
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The Vikings closed the regular season with nine consecutive wins, good enough for second place in District 4-5A.
"She rebounds well, can shoot the 10-foot jump shot which means we can also play her at the high post which opens up the lane for cutters," Lamar coach Errin Levels said. "Defensively, just her ability to move so well at her size provides a big presence."
Keys' all-around game makes Lamar 10 points a game better than without her.
"I think we still have a lot to learn," said Keys, who leads the team in scoring, rebounds and blocks. "We have been playing some really good basketball, but we can bring more. We're tougher than people think we are."
Lamar faces San Angelo Central (16-12) in Tuesday's bi-district playoff at Tuscola Jim Ned High School.
Arlington Bowie (27-6) has an impressive post player of its own. Ashley Ferguson rounds out the Lady Volunteers' roster much the same as Keys does for Lamar.
As Bowie prepares for Tuesday's first-round matchup against Odessa Permian, the Volunteers know they have a big advantage in Ferguson. The 6-1 junior averages a double-double in points and rebounds, shoots over 50 percent from the field and excels on the offensive glass.
"Ashley is a huge advantage on the floor," Bowie coach Kelly Carruthers said. "She has great hands, a soft touch on her shot, can finish in the paint."
Granbury boasts not only one of the top centers in the area, but one of the best players in school history. Coach Leta Andrews, who has more than 1,300 career victories, recently said that 6-3 center Lilley VanderZee is already one of the top five players she has ever coached.
VanderZee ranks at the top or in the top three in the area in points (20), rebounds (11) and blocks (3) per game and led the Pirates (25-7) to a second-place finish in a competitive District 7-4A.
"She's a tower inside on defense which allows us to play pressure defense and if they beat us out there they have to deal with Lilley inside," Andrews said. "On offense, they always put at least two girls on her which helps other people get open at times. She really makes a difference and is overall a really nice ballplayer."
VanderZee is also capable of putting up monster scoring nights, which the Pirates will need if they are going to make a deep run. The junior has scored 30 or more points five times this season, including a season-high 42 against Fort Worth Trimble Tech on Nov. 19.
Colleyville Heritage post Artavia Ford held VanderZee to only eight points in a 39-36 victory for the Panthers on Nov. 21. The 6-2 sophomore is just now discovering what she can do with her large frame and athleticism, but Heritage (21-10) needs her to step up in order to succeed this postseason.
Ford leads the Panthers in rebounding and blocks and is second in scoring.
"She definitely alters people's shots if they drive and she's a big rebounder," Heritage coach Dianna Sager said. "When she fights for a position and decides she wants a rebound, there's nobody in the gym who's going to get it. Also, if you give up the lob to her we'll take it all day long."
Heritage, second in District 6-5A, opens up the playoffs against Mansfield Timberview on Monday at Lamar High School.