Originally Published: March 7, 2014 6:02 a.m.
PRESCOTT VALLEY, Arizona - Kylie Morris hasn't always been a standout, let alone a regular, on the girls' basketball teams that she's played for in the past.
"Honestly, sixth grade, seventh grade, I never played," Morris, who was introduced to hoops at age 6, said rather matter-of-factly this week. "I was not a starter on travel ball. I was not a starter in middle school. Definitely the last person off the bench."
Nevertheless, that disappointment motivated Morris to unflinchingly pursue becoming a star on the hardwood once she reached Bradshaw Mountain High.
As soon as Morris moved beyond her perceived lack of size in the paint and focused instead on her talents as a scorer, fluid ball handler, rebounder and tenacious defender in summer ball, she came into her own for BMHS.
In 2013-14, the 5-foot-9 senior Morris, a four-year varsity starter for the Lady Bears, led her team in four statistical categories, including points (17.9), rebounds (9.0), steals (4.6) and blocks (1.0) per game in the squad's 29 contests. She also finished second in assists with 2.7 per game.
For playing a major role as a co-captain in leading the Bradshaw Mountain program to its fourth straight state tournament appearance and a 23-6 overall record this season, the Daily Courier has named Morris its prep girls' basketball Player of the Year.
This winter under first-year coach Deana Hendrix, Morris switched positions, moving from forward to shooting guard to take advantage of her shooting prowess and quickness.
As a result, Morris averaged 2 points per game more than she did a year ago, scoring 519 total points while shooting 53 percent from the floor (223-of-417).
Hendrix said she could have put the versatile Morris at any position on the floor this season.
"She's a fantastic basketball player," Hendrix said. "She's probably the best player and the hardest worker that I've ever coached. There's no one that's ever outworked her or out-hustled her. She has that desire and will to win. She'll do whatever the team needs to be successful. She definitely grew as a leader this season as well."
Senior co-captain Kirsten Smith, who also changed positions this season, transitioned from shooting guard to her more natural spot at point guard, leading the Lady Bears in assists with 4.3 per game.
The highly intelligent Morris and Smith have an uncanny connection on the floor. They feed off each other because they know one another's tendencies, and they understand how to build leads and hold onto them.
Smith said she's played basketball with Morris since the summer before their sixth grade year at Glassford Hill Middle School. They were in the Junior Suns program and travel ball together, where they honed their talents.
As middle school teammates, they went undefeated during the regular season from the sixth through the eighth grades. They won a middle school state championship as eighth graders.
Their success back then was as much a product of their desire as their skills.
"We've had our ups and downs in high school and in middle school, but it's just because we're both super competitive people," Morris said. "But, in the end, we always look for each other first on the court."
Defensively this season, Morris had a knack for moving fast on her feet and disrupting opposing offenses. She possessed impeccable timing for stripping balls out of the hands of the girls she guarded without committing costly fouls.
Morris loved playing the full-court press, one in which she would bait a ball-handler into throwing a bad pass in her direction, steal the ball and score an easy lay-up in transition.
Smith said that without Morris, Bradshaw wouldn't have won as many games as it did in 2013-14. As a guard, she had more opportunities to drive the lane, pull up and shoot.
"There were a lot of games where she had 22, 23 points, and that's what gave us that lead where we won by 22 or 23 points," Smith added. "She had more of an opportunity to take on the smaller guards that their coach would have to put on her because they didn't have anyone else to match up with her."
Morris and Smith had hoped that their Bradshaw team would've gotten past the first round at state, but they're still happy with how this winter turned out.
Last season, Bradshaw went on a 30-game winning streak before falling in the state quarterfinals to eventual state champion Scottsdale Saguaro.
In 2013-14, the Lady Bears opened the campaign on a 10-game winning streak and followed it up with a 9-game victorious stretch against a much stiffer schedule.
Smith said coach Hendrix, a former college player, did a good job of analyzing her players' strengths and weaknesses with the goal of building a stronger program.
Morris added that Hendrix wasn't afraid to give minutes to her younger girls, knowing that her six seniors couldn't get all of the playing time.
In the coming years, the Lady Bears should have more depth to make a serious push for a state title. Although she won't be around to see it, Morris is grateful for Hendrix's forward-thinking vision.
"She's not just looking for the here and now - she's looking for the future," Morris said. "She's not just doing it for the wins. She's doing it because she wants to get us better."
As for Morris and Smith's immediate future, they will traverse separate paths.
Although Smith has chosen not to play college basketball and will instead study nursing at Grand Canyon University, Morris said she will compete for Division 3 defending national champion DePauw (Indiana) in 2014-15.
Last week, Morris, who carries a weighted 4.0 GPA at Bradshaw and is in the National Honor Society with Smith, visited the DePauw campus.
"They have a 53-game winning streak, and they play this weekend for national championships," Morris said of DePauw. "They won their conference when I was there, which was really cool."
Morris plans to earn a degree in exercise science/physical therapy and hopefully play pro ball overseas for a while after her time in college.
"I loved it there," Morris added about her DePauw visit. "The coach said I'll be playing guard or power forward. I'm excited that I'll be getting some playing time."
Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc
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