As patented as Ashanti Fox’s crafty dribbling and spot up left-handed jump shot has seemed to become for the O’Neal girls basketball team over the last three seasons is her infectious smile while playing.
For the first five-plus minutes of Friday’s home game against Wayne Country Day, Fox’s expression was stoic, outside of taking a tumble and landing awkwardly after going up for a contested shot. She was frustrated by the defense the Chargers had on her in an effort from the visitors to slow down the scoring of the Falcons’ leading bucket getter.
A foul call and a free throw shot that shredded the net going through with 2:37 left in the first quarter allowed Fox to release a deep exhale, receive high fives from teammates and gave a quick flash of her smile. The Falcons took a 9-8 lead on the shot in game that was well from decided, but the weight on Fox’s shoulders lifted with that made shot from the charity stripe, her fifth point of the game to reach the 1,000th career point benchmark.
“She loves to play the game and you can see it with her smile. The first five points, she won’t say it, but she was nervous,” O’Neal girls basketball coach Lulu Brase said. “As soon as she got it, you could see her smile beaming again.”
Fox, a three-year starter since her seventh-grade season, has been a focal point for the program since she stepped foot into the Hannah Center Gym. Her tenacity during games and practices has led her to marks that most four-year players never reach. She has two-plus seasons left with the Falcon program.
“It’s very exciting knowing that I put all the work in to become this and hit 1,000 points. It’s something that not many people get to hit,” Fox said.
Brase credits Fox’s “gym rat” mentality to helping her to reach the 1,000-point mark in her career.
“The biggest thing with her is just like I said when she got her ball, she really is a gym rat. She loves playing basketball, and she’s not a kid who’s doing it for anybody but herself,” Brase said.
“That allows her to put the work in. She is really the first one in the gym every day and she has the ball in her hand at all times.”
That’s what has helped her as a scorer, but sitting back and learning from the past graduates of the program has helped her to grow the O’Neal program.
“For her, that’s why she can work as hard as she does, she can do all those things because it’s her passion,” Brase said. “It’s been fun to watch her evolve and grow. She’s always been a talented kid, but now she’s growing into a leader.”
Coming off a state championship game appearance last season, this year’s O’Neal squad looks slightly different with a handful of returners, who have expanded roles this season. Fox’s role this season remains the same as last year, but also expanded to that of a bigger leader, since she has upperclassman experience while just a sophomore.
“I’ve just got to lead them and help them out. Talk to them more so they become more comfortable,” Fox said.
Fox found out before the season that she was getting close to reaching 1,000 points for her career, and the secret of her being five points away entering Friday slipped out and into the mind of the prolific scorer.
“I didn’t really think I was this close when coach told me, not going to lie. When I heard I was 150 (points) away, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to hit it this year,’” Fox said.
It worked out that the five points needed would come against a Wayne Country Day squad that has a history with Fox. When the team met in February last year, Fox netted 30 of her 1,015 career points to date to help the Falcons top the Chargers to advance to the state championship game.
“It means a lot coming against a tough Wayne Country Day team,” Fox said. “It was a slow start. After I hit it, I was like, ‘OK, we’re there. Now the next play.’”
The next play and the plays to follow led to a game-high 20 points for Fox on a tough shooting night from distance. The jump shot is where she and her coach want to see the biggest growth over the next two years before graduation. But that doesn’t mean she can’t get hot from behind the arc.
“Building that jump shot is going to keep being that thing. Tonight was not the night she was hitting jump shots, but the other night she had 27 off of six 3-pointers,” Brase said.
Fox’s “next level” decision making, according to her coach, has been a key for the Falcons during her tenure. Even when shots aren’t falling, or a team runs a box-and-one defense keyed in on the Falcons’ star, she continues to make the right play, whether it means attacking the basket for another two points added to her career mark, or dump it off to an open teammate.
“This season is where she is growing the most. She’s starting to learn how she can impact a game that she might not be scoring in,” Brase said. “She’s learning to make those reads and making the extra passes.”
A state championship ring on her hand before graduating is something Fox desires, and she would trade in however many hundreds of points she finishes with to secure the hardware for the program, Fox said.
Friday’s game brought all the emotions of a state championship game with two high-caliber teams battling into overtime. The squads could very well meet again next month deep in the state playoffs, and Brase knows that any rematch with the Chargers will have the school’s most recent 1,000-point scorer, and the rest of her teammates, ready.
“We’re not in these kinds of games, and we’re not the program we are if we don’t have Ashanti,” Brase said. “It’s not just her scoring, but it’s her talking, her extra passes, it’s her basketball IQ and all the little things she does. It’s her coming and wanting to shoot an hour early and bringing two of her teammates with her.”
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