It didn’t take long for Independence girls basketball coach Amanda Hawthorne to identify who the Patriots best player was going to be this season.
Hawthorne enters her first season leading the Patriots after taking over for former coach Natalie Davis, and having a strong player to lean on might make the transition from Quail Hollow Middle School, where Hawthorne’s team won the conference title, to her first varsity job easier.
Laquisha Taylor, a 5-foot-10, silky-smooth guard, caught Hawthorne’s eye immediately.
Taylor has led the Patriots in scoring each of the past two seasons and averaged 19.2 points per game last year, when she surpassed the 1,000-point scoring barrier for her career. Now, in her senior season, the stakes are even higher.
The Patriots limped down the stretch last season and lost 10 of 12 games to finish 6-17 overall, after losing in the first round of the state playoffs. In several games, the Patriots had only six or seven healthy players, meaning teams could double-team Taylor, though it hardly affected her ability to put the ball in the basket.
This year, Hawthorne is expecting big things from her star, who is a two-time all-Southwestern 4A conference selection and the league’s top returning scorer.
“She can (shoot) it from right here,” Hawthorne said, pointing to a spot two steps beyond halfcourt. “I have her shoot her free throws from the 3-point line because she has that kind of range. You can immediately see it. She’s good and (the talent) is there for her.”
Taylor said she’s excited about her final season but views it and the coaching change as just another hurdle she has to clear.
“I want to put in more effort this year and be more of a leader,” she said. “But I’m not one of those people who yells and screams and I’m not going to push people to do what they don’t want to do, because we don’t have a lot of players to begin with.”
The Patriots will not field a JV team this season and have only 13 players on the varsity squad. Despite their limitations, they open the season as the No. 7 team in the Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly’s Super 7 rankings thanks, in large part, to Taylor and what she brings to the table.
“I think I’m a leader,” she said. “I know that I need to work on finishing at the basket with my left hand, but I can shoot the (3-pointer) pretty well. I think finding ways to score is my strength.
“I think I have the skills to play, and I’m going to show what I can do this year.”
That’s not what Patriots’ opponents want to hear. Opposing coaches know that to slow down Independence, they first must stop Taylor, which is a task harder than it might sound. Taylor has virtually unlimited range but can also get to the free-throw line, score in transition, and she almost never forces shots out of the flow of the game.
“She’s an amazing shooter and she can move without the ball,” Hawthorne said. “Plus she’s really quick and she has that really long wingspan where she can put shots right back in people’s faces.”
And the scary part of Taylor’s refined offensive skills is that she could be even better this season, according to Hawthorne.
“I’m not always sure Laquisha is playing to get better,” Hawthorne said. “She plays because she likes the game and it’s fun to her, but I think she needs that little push and she could be good – real good – and could be a good college player if she took it a little more seriously.”
Taylor said she would love to break the Patriots’ all-time scoring mark. That, along with her AAU play with the Charlotte Basketball Club Magic, could help her accomplish her longtime goal of playing in college.
So far, Taylor said she hasn’t received any scholarship offers but has drawn interest from a few schools, including N.C. Central.
“She definitely has all of the skills to be a really good high school player and those skills probably could translate to college,” Hawthorne said. “I’m really excited to see her in game action and see what she can do.”
Hawthorne said Taylor is not a fiery, in-your-face type of motivator but she will do anything the coaches ask, run every drill hard and lead by her play in practice and on game day.”
That should help the Patriots this season, especially with such a young and largely unproven team.
Although the Patriots return several key contributors from last year – including 5-9 senior post Kaitlyn Beaver and guards Destiny Middleton, Daijah Sims and Monique Dubose – the barometer for how good they can be will ultimately rest with how well Taylor performs, both as a scorer and a leader.
Entering her senior season, Taylor said she doesn’t feel any additional pressure to perform, since she’s been the Patriots’ leading scorer for the past two seasons. Her teammates might look more to her, but she’s ready for whatever comes the Patriots’ way.
“It’s not really any different,” Taylor said of her final high school year. “I want to have a good season, but it’s the same. I just love playing basketball.”
Aside from gunning to break the school scoring record, Taylor has another goal she wants to accomplish in her last year as a Patriot: advance past the first round of the playoffs, something she hasn’t yet done while at Independence.
With several returning pieces and a refocused Taylor leading the way, the Patriots feel they can make some noise in the basketball-rich Southwestern 4A conference. But however the season ends, Taylor said she’ll have fun playing the sport she loves and not take herself or her smooth game too seriously.
“That’s just who I am,” Taylor said of her laid-back demeanor. “I take games to heart, but I know if we lose and I gave it my all and my teammates did, too, than I’m OK with the results. Of course, I want to win and make sure I’m doing all I can to help my team come out on top.”
Hawthorne said she’d like to challenge her star to be the best she can be. If she can get even a little more production out of Taylor, the Patriots could be a team to be reckoned with.
“I’m ready to have a great season and see how far we can go,” Taylor said. “I will give it my all and see how far we can go.”