Sometimes, fate forces players to step up, giving them the opportunity to shine when the chance might not have been present before.
For Eastside senior point guard Deshantra Kelly, that opportunity came when Eastside’s leading scorer, Jazzmine Cook, went down with an injury Dec. 7 against rival Alcovy.
Without their most dangerous player, the Lady Eagles were left filling a void that many didn’t think they could overcome.
But, instead of faltering, the Lady Eagles have survived, winning three of their last five games, and Kelly has shone in her leading role, making sure that Eastside runs as smoothly now in Cook’s absence as the well-oiled machine did with its key cog.
“She’s always been a good defensive player for us, and at the point guard position, she’s taken on more as we’ve suffered through some injuries,” Eastside coach Matthew Jackson said. “Now, she’s had to step up without our leading scorer, and has really upped her defensive intensity. She can go out and get steals, change tempo, push the ball and control the game.
“I’m proud of the way she has handled the team,” he said. “Her stamina is amazing. She doesn’t come out a lot because we need her, but I’m happy she’s been able to step up.”
Kelly’s game has had to grow with Cook on the sidelines. The senior has always been a tough defensive matchup for many teams, but now, she’s had to pick up part of the scoring load Cook left behind.
Against the Lady Tigers, Kelly finished with 10 points, two rebounds, three assists and five steals as the Lady Eagles won 51-46. Against Newton, Kelly finished with six point and two assists, while dishing out another three assists against North Oconee.
As the season moves along, Kelly said that her previous varsity experience has allowed her to step up and take command.
“I’ve been on the varsity team for four years now, and I’ve been able to take on more pressure this year because of the time I spent on the varsity team early on,” Kelly said. “I could step up because I had to replace players who left the program when I was young. I got a lot of experience at the varsity level early, and it’s made me better because of it.
“Since Jazzmine went down, I’ve had to push myself to step up, and push my teammates,” she said. “We have to fill in the spots that she took control over, so we have to step in and pick ourselves up and rise to the level that she was at.”
Eastside has allowed more than 60 points just once during its most recent five-game streak with Cook sidelined.
“My defense is my biggest strength,” Kelly said. “I’d rather play defense than offense. It’s my strong point. I’m an athlete; I like to run people down and cause trouble and I like the challenge of keeping defenders in front of me. Not too many people can get by me. It’s easy to score, but it’s harder to keep someone from scoring.”
Jackson said his point guard’s attitude on the floor is what allows her to guide her teammates.
“Her biggest asset is her tenacity,” Jackson said. “She brings great defensive pressure and has a never-quit attitude. She can go and get on the ball and slow down other teams’ best players. She’s always been a really good listener and a good captain. She’s just a good all-around kid who gets it done on the court and in the classroom. She’s a great role model for her teammates.”
The Lady Eagles coach added that he hopes Kelly becomes more confident in her shot, adding a bit of offensive flair to her defensive-minded game.
“She is one of our best shooters, but I want to see her shoot the ball more than she normally does,” Jackson said. “She doesn’t look for her offense, but she can shoot the ball in tempo. She knows when to shoot and when not to shoot, and she can find the right opportunity to score when she needs to. She’s very unselfish, but we can always have her be a little more selfish and make shots when we need them.”
Kelly, who plans to pursue a career as a pharmacist when her time at Eastside is over, said she just wants the Lady Eagles to continue to play at the level she knows they’re capable of.
“I think we can do big things if we continue to play as a team and do what we know we can do,” she said. “We can’t play down to the competition; we have to stay up for every game and treat every opponent like a playoff game.”