As much as a 5-foot-11 freshman could sneak up on people, Nia Irving sneaked up on the rest of Eastern A this season.
When the winter was over, Irving was the go-to player on a Lawrence team that reached the Eastern A semifinals, and had concluded one of the best seasons ever for a freshman in Class A. She averaged 19.6 points and 13.4 rebounds per game, and was named the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A North Player of the Year.
Irving is also the choice for the Morning Sentinel Girls Basketball Player of the Year. Erskine’s Bridget Humphrey was also considered.
“I knew she was a highly-talented eighth-grader and over the years,” Lawrence coach John Donato said. “I watched her progress, but I didn’t think she’d dominate as much as she did.”
Irving was in danger of starting the season on the shelf. In a freak injury while playing fall basketball, she tore the meniscus in her right knee. She was a starting back in field hockey, but the injury and subsequent surgery knocked her out of action for the rest of that season.
“At first, I didn’t know what happened,” Irving said. “All I did was take a step back, and then I couldn’t walk. I yelled to my dad, and I was like, ‘I can’t walk!’ And he was like, ‘What are you talking about? All you did was take a step back!’
“So I called a timeout, and I kind of hobbled over to the bench and then fell on it. I don’t even really know how it happened to this day.”
By the time Lawrence’s basketball season began, Irving was back, and she says the injury didn’t really hinder her play this season.
“During the season, I definitely had some games where I could tell that it was sore, and I knew I was definitely going to have to ice it when I got home,” she said. “Some practices, I would just kind of take it easy and lay low. But other than that, it didn’t really affect me too bad.”
Two years ago, Lawrence finished 2-16. The team was certainly going to be better, and Irving was a reason for that. Donato said she played great in summer ball, and Irving already had a lot of experience through AAU basketball. With Irving and the emergence of players like Paige Belanger, Bri Soucy, Shelby Rudnicki, and Alexis Chamberlain, the Bulldogs were ready to contend in Eastern A.
“Coming into this season, I knew not to set my expectations too high,” Irving said. “But I knew that with my team, we could definitely make something happen.
“My expectations individually were set pretty high, but I wouldn’t say that I was comparing myself to anyone else. I wanted to be the personal best that I could be.”
That turned out to be pretty good. In Lawrence’s first win, over Brunswick, Irving had a temperature of 101 early in the day, but still had 10 points and 16 rebounds. She turned it on from there. According to Donato, Irving averaged nearly 24 points per game over the second half of the season, despite dealing with double-teaming and the pressure of being a go-to player.
“I think she’s been in enough pressure situations, being on that AAU team, that she’s very mature,” Donato said. “Sure, she gets a little emotional at times, but she handles it well. She’s a great young lady — very complimentary, never negative.”
Part of what made Irving’s transition to the high school game easier was that Lawrence’s starting point guard is freshman Dominique Lewis. The two are good friends, and Lewis has been feeding Irving post passes for nearly half of their lives.
“I’ve been playing with her since around third grade, and probably before that during PAL,” Irving said. “Ever since then, we’ve grown up together, and we’ve always played basketball together, and we’re always hanging out. We just have this sort of thing where we automatically know what’s going on with each other. We know where each other is, and it definitely helps a lot on the court.”
Lewis and others also helped take some of the scoring pressure off Irving with their outside shooting. With Lawrence trailing Cony in the final seconds of a midseason game, the Bulldogs were unable to get the ball to Irving, but Lewis hit a desperation 3-pointer for the win with two seconds left.
Then, late in the season, Irving found out she was the KVAC A North Player of the Year.
“I had no idea that I was even in the running for that,” Irving said. “My coach called me one day after a basketball game, and he said, ‘I just wanted to tell you that you got Player of the Year for the North.’ I’m like, ‘Wait….you’re kidding me, right?’ It was pretty much the happiest day of my life.”
In the quarterfinals, the Bulldogs faced a veteran Mt. Blue team. Irving scored 28 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. She scored 10 straight Lawrence points in the second half, turning a 48-48 tie into a 58-51 lead.
“She gets the offense involved,” Donato said. “For her as a freshman, to recognize where openings are and take advantage of that is very, very unique. She has great hands. She uses both hands very well.”
A few days later, Lawrence was caught in Cony’s run to the regional finals. Irving picked up two fouls in the first minute, and hurt her shoulder in Cony’s 49-37 win.
“I was definitely extremely happy that my team and I made it to the semifinals,” Irving said. “I’m sad that it came to a close so early with that loss to Cony. They’re a great team, and they played a great game.”
Irving, who plays softball and field hockey at Lawrence in addition to her offseason basketball, realizes the days of her and her basketball teammates sneaking up on Eastern A are over. She feels she’s ready for that challenge.
“I still have a lot to prove,” she said. “What I’ve accomplished this season is great, but I definitely look to accomplish more next season. (Other teams) are going to know that, and they’re going to be ready for it.”
Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243