North Babylon's trio of stars aiming for a Long Island championship

North Babylon seniors Lauren Williams, left, Makeda Nicholas, North Babylon seniors Lauren Williams, left, Makeda Nicholas, center, and junior Brianna Jones, pose for a photo during practice at the school in North Babylon on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. Photo Credit: Brad Penner

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Brianna Jones got position in the paint and fired . . . while sitting on the floor.

Lauren Williams spun, dribbled between her legs and heaved a desperation shot . . . from midcourt.

Makeda Nicholas stepped to the line with the game in jeopardy and attempted a free throw . . . backward.

It was just a friendly game of H-O-R-S-E between teammates . . . who happen to be Division I-caliber high school players.

Jones, Williams and Nicholas, three longtime friends and basketball standouts, just led North Babylon to a 17-1 regular season. Now the Bulldogs are favorites to win their first Long Island championship since 2008.

But first, a contest for bragging rights.

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The baseline 18-footer. A sidestep crossover and pull-up while fading left. Those shots Jones executed so effortlessly aren't useful only in H-O-R-S-E.

The shooting guard's jumper first propelled her to stardom, and one in overtime of the Suffolk Class AA semifinals propelled North Babylon to the final last year.

But it's the development of a dynamic all-around game that has made the junior an elite prospect -- the 16th-rated college recruit, to be precise, with offers pouring in from Duke, Louisville and the like.

"We still joke about how different Brianna's game is and how she was timid as a kid," Williams said. "Now she's one of the most confident players you'll find."

And competent. Jones is averaging 18.0 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists and is shooting 39 percent from three-point range. She grew two inches to 5-10 in the last year and added muscle, allowing her to finish despite contact and become a physical defender. Add that to what Nicholas described as "a lethal jumper" and you've got the only junior nominee for Gatorade state Player of the Year.

In H-O-R-S-E, Williams set the bar high for her teammates, as she has all season: between the legs, a spin move and the finish with a reverse lefty layup.

Defenders have seen enough of that from her. And the dribble drives and no-look dishes in the paint. And the defense -- that frustrating defense.

"She's in your face," Jones said of Williams' defense, which also can describe her personality as a vocal leader and the team jokester. "I've seen her make the best ballhandlers get frazzled."

Williams' passing ability has gotten Nicholas easy baskets in the post and helped open the perimeter for Jones. Williams, headed to Florida Atlantic, is averaging 10.7 points, 6.0 assists and 3.7 steals.

Those skills and her tenacious style, coach Debbie Brajevich said, make her "a point guard's point guard."

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Williams played for the Bulldogs as a seventh- and eighth-grader but spent the next three years in Catholic schools. Last summer, though, she returned to her hometown school and formed the Bulldogs' Big Three.

"She was the missing piece," Brajevich said. "I told her we could win a state title with her here."

H-O-R-S-E came down to Williams and Nicholas. With Williams facing elimination, Nicholas hit a one-handed reverse layup, which secured the victory.

"Ahh," Williams said with a grin, "we let her have it."

Nicholas, a 6-2 forward, had drawn oohs earlier when she slapped the backboard -- just beneath the rim -- while sinking a layup.

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Height and athleticism usually are to her advantage in games, too. Nicholas swats shots into the stands regularly and has led Long Island in blocks the last two seasons. Her up-and-under move in the post is hard to contain, as is her midrange jumper.

"She's a monster," Jones said. "It's a luxury to be able to give her the ball and let her just go."

In her fifth varsity season, the Delaware-bound Nicholas, a senior, is averaging 16.4 points, 13.2 rebounds and 6.6 blocks.

"Three Division I players on a public school team, you don't see that too often," she said. "I'm glad we're all here and doing this together."

The personalities have combined to foster a team atmosphere that is competitive and confident but also relaxed. Jones often entertains teammates with her singing and Nicholas, who is of Jamaican descent, shows off her Caribbean dance moves.

Sabrina Powell, Katie Zambrotta and Olivia Thomas help fortify a talented roster, giving North Babylon a chance, perhaps, at its first state title.

"We want to fulfill that potential," Jones said. "A championship is something you'd look back on years later like 'I was part of something special.' "

H-O-R-S-E didn't settle much, as any of the three could've won. It still hasn't been determined who is the best at it.

"Which do you prefer, a million dollars in gold, in diamonds or in emeralds?" Brajevich asked. "With players and people of that caliber, they're all jewels."

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