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Nevaeh Williams is Mt. Clemens’ ‘Polamalu,’ but sophomore can’t pick off Dearborn Henry Ford Academy in CSC tourney semis

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, February 13, 2020, 12:09 am

ROMULUS — She doesn’t have the same voluminous mass of hair as the Pro Football Hall of Famer, but Nevaeh Williams does have the same impact on the hardwood as Steelers legend Troy Polamalu used to on the NFL gridiron.

You’d better know where she is, you’d better account for her, and you’d better figure out a way to keep the ball out of her hands.

Even though Dearborn Henry Ford Academy knew that coming into Wednesday’s semifinal game in the Charter School Conference tournament, the diminutive Mt. Clemens sophomore point guard still snatched 12 steals, and posted 26 points.

What she couldn’t do, though, was beat the Navigators single-handedly, as HFA held on for a 44-36 win, sending them on to Friday’s tournament finals. 

It wasn’t pretty, but …

“That’s kind of been the MO of our team all year: Find a way to win,” coach Jeffrey Hachigian said. 

The champions of the West Division in the league regular season, HFA (11-4) moves on to Friday’s tournament title game, where the Navigators will take on Chandler Park Academy, which is going for its ninth league title in 10 seasons. CPA’s ‘Black’ team won the East Division in the regular season, but this will be the full primary squad. 

To get there, though, the Navigators had to get past Mt. Clemens (7-8) and Williams. 

That might not seem like such a big deal, at first glance, given that she stands all of 5-foot-5, but your opinion might change when — like Polamalu — she picks off a pass, and takes it the other way for a score.

It’s why the Navigators were very careful handling the ball against the Mt. Clemens press, and it’s why they were more than willing to settle back in a 2-3 zone, and led the Battling Bathers bomb away from the outside.

“She’s very shifty, she’s very fast, so our whole plan is trying to make her beat us from outside,” Hachigian said. “Some of those 3-point shooters were open by design — let them shoot, and just rebound. But you can’t let No. 4 (Williams) get going. If she gets going, she’s a tough player.”

She might be the best player that most high school hoops fans have never heard of.

Shoot, she might not even be the most widely recognized sophomore hoops star at her own school. (That honor probably goes to Javaughn Hannah of the Bathers’ boys team, who recently broke the county single-game scoring record by dropping 60.)

“Definitely. She’s definitely the best player that nobody knows about. Unfortunately she gets overlooked a lot, but she definitely can play,” Mt. Clemens coach Derrick McKinney said. “In my opinion, if I had to rank it, she’s the best in Michigan, as far as the girls go. She’s just a sophomore, just a sophomore.”

She’s also creeping up on 1,000 points scored with five regular-season games left in her sophomore season. Williams averages more than 23 points per game, to go with more than eight steals per contest. 

It’s the latter that was as concerning to HFA, as they planned to counter the Bathers’ full-court pressure. 

“We rebound well. The biggest issue is that when we do rebound well, we gotta make sure we get it to the right guards. Sometimes — my young players are mostly all sophomores; two seniors, but the rest of them are sophomores — they’ll grab a rebound and throw it right back to the other team. Just making sure we understand to grab it, hold it strong, and make a good outlet pass,” Hachigian said. 

“We talked about it. We have a couple different little press-breakers we have in there — still need to get better at it. She (Williams) was kind of playing a safety on us. We’re used to trying to run it, move the ball, and it’s been open for us all year, but when you have a safety there who’s reading your eyes, now you’ve gotta start influencing her with ball fakes and all that stuff, and that’s what we had to talk about cleaning up in the second half.”

That’s where the Polamalu comparison comes in.

“Actually, the name of that play is Polamalu, after the free safety. She’s Polamalu, and she gets the (steals). When Polamalu played, he roamed free, and so that’s the plan — let her roam free,” McKinney said. “She’s great at anticipating. She can anticipate the play, anticipate the pass.”

Other than a spurt at the start of the fourth quarter, where the Bathers ran off the first seven points of the frame after falling behind 31-20, the pressure didn’t really crack the Navigators. 

“They’re such a good team — they’re much bigger than us. The plan was to get the ball out of the ball-handlers’ hands, make them make quick, bad decisions. Try to keep them out of the halfcourt, so they can’t utilize their size,” McKinney said. “It didn’t work out like we wanted it to — it worked in spurts, but not like we envisioned it.”

Mt. Clemens led 7-5 after the first quarter, but HFA had a 16-14 lead at the half. A 15-6 advantage in the third quarter gave the Navigators a double-digit lead to start the fourth, but Mt. Clemens quickly whittled it down to four points, 31-27, with 6:44 left. 

The Bathers couldn’t get over the hump, though, as HFA quickly pushed it back up to 10 points, 37-27, over the next two and a half minutes, then hit just enough from the free-throw line to hold on to win.

“It’s just the energy. Sometimes, we’ve gotta feed off that energy that Nevaeh is putting out — she’s putting out a lot of energy every play,” McKinney said. “All the energy wasn’t there — it was there in spurts, but it wasn’t there consistently like we needed it to be.” 

Tori Love had 16 to lead HFA, while Harmony Earth-Wiley had 11.