Caliya Robinson reaching new heights

Courtesy of Omar Cooper

Caliya Robinson's coach used to urge her junior transfer to keep her feet on the floor on defense. That was before Robinson set a McEachern record with 17 blocks in a game.

For the first time all season, an opponent blocked Caliya Robinson's shot last Saturday night.

It came in McEachern's (Powder Springs, Ga.) Class AAAAAA state semifinal against South Forsyth (Cumming, Ga.), and the stunned witnesses on the McEachern bench all thought the same thing.

Uh-oh.

"We all knew it was over at that point," eighth-year McEachern coach Phyllis Arthur said. "Caliya was going to go after everyone's shot. She's a competitor."

Courtesy Omar Cooper

After a shy start, Caliya Robinson is averaging nearly 12 points per game.

Robinson, a 6-foot-3 junior forward, insists she didn't get that angry.

"I got serious," she said.

Whether it was mad or serious, Robinson definitely got busy. She finished with 16 points, 13 rebounds, 9 blocks, 6 assists and 4 steals.

Her efforts helped McEachern beat South Forsyth 64-27 and advance to Saturday's state final against Archer (Lawrenceville, Ga.).

Robinson has four triple-doubles this season -- registering at least 10 points, rebounds and blocks each time. She also had eight assists in two games that nearly became quadruple-doubles.

It's no wonder the Indians (27-2) haven't lost to a Georgia school all season and haven't lost to anyone since November -- 24 consecutive wins.

McEachern is favored to get back the state title it won it 2012, when it went 33-0. Four of the Indians' seniors that season are now playing Division I college basketball.

The only key returnee from that team is 5-foot-8 junior point guard Te'a Cooper, who had pledged since the eighth grade to sign with North Carolina but recently reopened her recruitment.

Cooper, the No. 4 player in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the 2015 class, leads the Indians in points (19.3), assists (5.4) and steals (4.5).

The No. 11 player on that 2015 list is Robinson, who took up residence with the Cooper family last summer.

Family tragedy

When she was 4 months old, Robinson said, her father, Ricardo Robinson, was killed, "shot in the neck."

It's not a topic she wants to discuss further except to say, "I still think of the what-ifs. They say I look just like him and act like him."

Robinson was raised by her single mother, Chemeka Johnson, 37, who has been in and out of hospitals the past two years after being diagnosed with pancreatitis and lupus.

Johnson, a mother of four, also needs hip surgery and has yet to see Robinson play in high school. She is hoping to be healthy enough to travel to Macon for the state final, but that is not a given.

Because of her medical issues, Johnson asked Robinson's AAU coach, Omar Cooper, if he could become her daughter's legal guardian. Cooper agreed, and the family took Robinson in last summer.

Robinson, who has her own room with the Coopers, transferred from Kell (Marietta, Ga.) once she moved into the McEachern district, and Johnson said she is overjoyed with the arrangement.

"Caliya was having trouble in school [at Kell], so I asked Omar to help me," said Johnson, who added that Robinson visits her every weekend. "The school where she was at wasn't worried about her grades. They were just worried about basketball.

"Now she's doing so much better. She's happier. She's doing the things she needs to be doing. She's a good kid, very intelligent. She can do anything she wants in life."

Adjusting to the system

Part of what Robinson wants to do is block shots, and Arthur admits she "butted heads" with her new player early this season.

Arthur wanted Robinson to stop leaving her feet on defense, but the two have since learned to compromise.

"Caliya has natural ability," Arthur said. "She can leap out of the gym, score inside and outside. But I didn't know anything about her until she came to my gym in August. My first thought was that she was really skinny -- couldn't weigh more than 130 pounds."

Robinson actually weighs 173 pounds.

I've learned that you have to give her freedom to make mistakes and play her game. I stopped trying to change things she's done her whole life.
McEachern coach Phyllis Arthur on Caliya Robinson

"I guess she's all muscle," Arthur said.

Robinson is averaging 11.9 points, 10.6 rebounds, 5.8 blocks, 3.8 assists and 3.4 steals. But those numbers -- as impressive as they are -- have been much higher during the second half of the season.

For the first 10 games, as Arthur learned how to best use her, Robinson failed to score in double figures. Arthur had to beg her to shoot more.

"She's kind of shy," Arthur said. "I didn't know how good she was until the middle of the season."

The turning point came in January when Arthur saw Robinson seemingly fly from the post to the 3-point line to block a shot.

Suddenly, all that stuff about not leaving her feet didn't matter as much.

Pretty soon, Robinson was filling up the stat sheet, getting 22 points, 21 rebounds, a school-record 17 blocks and 8 assists against Hillgrove (Powder Springs). She also had 13 points, 17 rebounds, 12 blocks and 8 assists against Campbell (Smyrna).

"I've learned that you have to give her freedom to make mistakes and play her game," Arthur said. "I stopped trying to change things she's done her whole life. Hey, as long as she stays out of foul trouble, we're good."

Arthur still would like Robinson to become more versatile and sound defensively. She played her at the top of a pressure 1-3-1 zone this season, and Robinson didn't feel comfortable and was eventually moved to the back.

The coach also wants Robinson to do a better job of denying the ball to the player she is guarding.

"I think she wants them to get the ball so she can block their shot," Arthur said with a chuckle. "I can't really complain because we have gotten this far."

College decision

The question remains: Where will Robinson go next?

After struggling with a GPA that was barely 2.0 at Kell, Robinson is at 3.0 this season.

She has scores of offers from major colleges but said she won't put together a list of finalists until later this month at the earliest.

Eric Lars Bakke/ESPN

Caliya Robinson says she's targeting a school in a warm climate where she can start as a freshman.

Robinson has grown close with Te'a Cooper, who, in no particular order, is considering Tennessee, Duke, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Ohio State, Florida State, South Carolina, Louisville, Kentucky, Rutgers and Pittsburgh.

Might Robinson be living with Cooper in college as well as high school?

"There's a great chance of that," Cooper said.

"Caliya has turned into a Kevin Durant-type player, dribbling the ball between her legs and shooting 3's."

Robinson, who wants to study graphic design and would love to create her own clothing line one day, said she would prefer to leave Georgia but still stay relatively close and play in a warm climate.

"I also want a close relationship with the coach, like a mother-daughter or father-daughter," Robinson said. "I'm hoping to start as a freshman, but I don't want it handed to me. I want to work for the position."

And, yes, Robinson said she would love to keep Cooper as her point guard.

She said she and all her teammates have fun together and recalled the time earlier this season when six of the girls were in a supermarket and broke into song.

"We sang 'My Girl' by the Temptations," Robinson said. "Everyone in the store started clapping."

A sound she's sure to hear a lot more of.

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