St. Mary's duo finds friendship and success
This story appeared in the Bay Area edition of the December ESPN RISE Magazine.
St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.) girls' basketball coach Tom Gonsalves can always count on hearing from Chelsea Gray and Afure Jemerigbe at the start of practice. Whether it's his hair style, the way his shirt looks or a tie he's wearing, Gray and Jemerigbe are quick to poke fun at their coach, eliciting plenty of laughter from their teammates -- and even Gonsalves himself -- in the process.
Best friends since sixth grade, Gray and Jemerigbe always seem to be enjoying themselves, often joking around off the court while flashing huge smiles.
"It keeps the environment happy, and we like to have fun," says Gray.
But it's been no laughing matter for opponents who've dealt with the terrific tandem on the court throughout their careers at St. Mary's. Together, the seniors form the country's top duo, with each checking in near the top of the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100.
The Duke-bound Gray is a 5-foot-11 point guard rated California's top player and the nation's No. 4 recruit. Jemerigbe, a 5-foot-11 shooting guard, is rated No. 15 in the nation and will play at Cal next season.
Four-year starters, Gray and Jemerigbe came to the Stockton school with the hopes of continuing the winning tradition started by players like current USC guard Jacki Gemelos, a McDonald's All-American who guided the Rams to two state championships.
Gonsalves could see the pair's considerable talents even when they were freshmen and gave them prominent roles right away. They responded with impressive debuts, as Jemerigbe was named The Stockton Record Player of the Year after averaging 14 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game. Gray contributed 11.9 points and 3.6 assists per contest.
"They're really a great combination," says Gonsalves, who's in his ninth season as head coach. "Athletically, Afure can step up to a level I've never seen a girl do before. She can grab the rim pretty easily and she's so physically strong. Chelsea is really smooth and can beat you in any facet of the game. She's got the whole package."
As sophomores, they both upped their numbers across the board. This time, Gray was The Stockton Record Player of the Year after averaging 18 points and 4.5 assists per game. Jemerigbe added 16 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.
While the production was there during their first two seasons, the finish to each campaign didn't go exactly as planned. Sacred Heart Cathedral knocked off the Rams in the CIF Northern California Division III playoffs both years. The Fightin' Irish cruised past the Rams, 79-51, in the NorCal semifinals in 2007 and followed that up with a 46-45 victory in the finals the next year.
Both setbacks were painful, but the loss their sophomore year was especially tough. In that game, former Sacred Heart All-American Tierra Rogers gave the Fightin' Irish a one-point lead with nine seconds left. Gray then tossed the inbounds pass the length of the court to Jemerigbe, who missed the potential game-winner at the buzzer.
"It was heartbreaking," recalls Jemerigbe. "It didn't really hit me until we got to the press room and people started asking me how I felt. That's when I broke down. Basketball is very important to me. My goal coming into St. Mary's was to win state, and I felt like I disappointed my team."
But Gray wasn't about to let her teammate feel sorry for herself.
"It wasn't her fault we lost that game," Gray says. "No way."
Though upset, Jemerigbe didn't dwell on the loss. Rather, she vowed her team wouldn't experience similar heartbreak the next year.
St. Mary's advanced to the NorCal Division III finals again last season and sure enough faced the same Sacred Heart squad that had stymied them the two previous years. Gray and Jemerigbe had their shot at redemption, and they weren't about to let it pass.
With St. Mary's leading, 60-58, Rogers provided a here-we-go-again moment by tying the game at 60 with 19 seconds left. Gonsalves decided not to call a timeout, so the Rams pushed the ball past halfcourt before it finally settled in Gray's hands on the perimeter. She calmly dribbled right, spun to her left and pulled up from the foul line with two defenders on her. The shot went up, bounced around the rim and fell through to give St. Mary's the lead with two seconds left. Sacred Heart inbounded the ball but couldn't get it past halfcourt for a shot attempt.
When the final horn sounded, the Rams rushed the floor and piled on top of Gray.
"I wanted the ball in my hands," says Gray, who scored a game-high 24 points. "I wanted to take the shot. We finally beat them and we were finally going to the state championship."
"I thought we defended her well," adds former Sacred Heart head coach Brian Harrigan, who retired in June after 19 seasons. "She made a great move and made a great shot."
The Rams went on to beat Inglewood, 71-62, in the state finals behind 23 points and six boards from Jemerigbe. St. Mary's finished No. 9 in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 and Gray was named an ESPNRISE.COM first team All-American.
This year, the Rams are poised to make even more noise as St. Mary's returns everyone from last year's squad. Gray and Jemerigbe are especially motivated to get another title this season since next year the two will be heading to different schools. It will be the first time they haven't played together since the fifth grade. Since then, the two have developed an on-court rapport that's hard for opponents to handle.
"We read each other really well, know what the other is thinking and what we're going to do next," says Gray. "When we're hot, I don't think anyone can stop us," adds Jemerigbe.
And that goes for both their play on the court and their jokes off it.
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