so chas wheeling prk2

South Charleston’s Maliha Witten (15) defends against Wheeling Park’s Shanley Woods during last year’s state tournament. Witten is our choice for top defensive player in the Kanawha Valley girls basketball midseason awards.

As we get set to enter the third full week in January, most teams either have reached or are coming up on the halfway mark of the girls basketball season.

In the last two weeks, conference battles have heated up and there have been some big-time showdowns in the top 10 locally and beyond, as state tournament contenders and pretenders sort themselves out.

From now until sectionals are allowed to begin Feb. 21, there will be a blitz of important games on the hardwood. Before conference play continues further, let’s take a look at the year so far by handing out some midseason Kanawha Valley awards.

Top player

Kalissa Lacy, junior guard, George Washington: Shaking off defenders and perceptions game by game, Lacy has improved on her scoring mark of 18.6 points per game a year ago and will enter next week with 25.5 points per game. Last year’s average was enough to win the Mountain State Athletic Conference scoring title by 0.6 points over Mary Ostrowski Award winner Shay-Lee Kirby of Parkersburg. This year’s mark is nearly seven points per game better than any other player in the league.

But it’s not just the points Lacy is scoring, it’s how she’s scoring them. Playing alongside slashing guard Katy Darnell for the last two seasons, and with point guard Dee McMillan two years ago, Lacy spent a lot of time spotting up on the 3-point line, where her deadly long-range jumper did most of her damage.

Knowing that Darnell’s graduation a year ago would bring with it more defensive attention, Lacy put in work in the offseason and it’s showing up thus far. In Thursday’s 63-53 win over Woodrow Wilson, Lacy hit mid-range jumpers, collected a couple of steals and ensuing runout layups, and yes, if she’s open for 3, she’s still as deadly as any shooter in the state.

“I know coaches and players kind of see me as a 3-point shooter and I can’t do much else,” Lacy said. “During the offseason I worked on my pull-up game and drives to the basket and ball-handling, because I know if I develop all of that I’m going to be hard to stop.”

Other contenders: Baylee Goins, Nitro; Allison Dunbar, Herbert Hoover; Myra Cuffee, South Charleston; Maliha Witten, South Charleston.

Top rookie

Maggie Odour, freshman point guard, Hurricane: Odour was an eyelash from winning the Kanawha Valley Rookie of the Year award in soccer, eventually yielding to Poca striker Katie Farley. But Odour’s athleticism is evident in whatever sport she’s playing. She missed some time early with an ankle injury, but recently has started coming into her own. She’s averaging 11.4 points over the Redskins’ last five contests, including scoring 20 and 14 in Mountain State Athletic Conference wins over Capital and St. Albans, respectively.

Other contenders: Taylor Ray, Herbert Hoover; Taylor Maddox, Hurricane; Alanna McKenzie, Riverside; Chloe Hale, Buffalo.

Top defensive player

Maliha Witten, junior guard, South Charleston: Combining high basketball IQ and athleticism, Witten is the driving force in the Black Eagles’ half-court, pressuring, trapping, switching man-to-man defense that has given other teams absolute fits so far this season. South Charleston is yielding just 44.1 points per game and has held three straight MSAC opponents — Spring Valley, St. Albans and Class AAA No. 2 Cabell Midland — under 50 points. In her third year as a starter, Witten is the vocal leader in terms of directing the Black Eagles’ attack on both ends of the floor.

Other contenders: Emily Hudson, Winfield; Kiersten Eggleton, St. Albans; Caroline Woody, Herbert Hoover; Mary Lyle Smith, George Washington.

Top coach

John Vencill, Herbert Hoover: After winning a combined 18 games over the past three seasons, Vencill has the Huskies sitting at 8-5 with all five losses coming against ranked competition (Class AA No. 2 Winfield, No. 4 Wayne, No. 7 Nitro, No. 8 Chapmanville and Class A No. 4 Pocahontas County). This award is largely decided in the postseason, where Hoover will take on a Class AA Region 2 field that will be tough but perhaps not as brutal as Region 4, where the rest of the Cardinal Conference will duke it out. Regardless, the undersized Huskies are attacking the glass better as a team, have improved defensively and are developing some complementary scoring for Allison Dunbar, primarily freshman point guard Taylor Ray.

Other contenders: Kelsey Spang, Winfield; Gary Greene, South Charleston; Wes Hevener, Charleston Catholic.

Most improved player

Emily Lancaster, sophomore center, Nitro: After scoring just 28 points a year ago, Lancaster already has scored 113 this season and is approaching a double-figure average. More than that, the 6-foot center has settled into her role and is playing with confidence that seems to increase by the game.

She’s shown the ability to take over games — scoring 24 in a win over Sissonville and 21 in a victory over Mingo Central — and provides a big target for guards Baylee Goins and Haley Carroll to find when pressure along the perimeter is too much. Should Lancaster continue to develop and learn to avoid foul trouble, her presence in the post could give the Wildcats a crucial third dependable scoring option by postseason time.

Other contenders: Kierstyn Doss, Winfield; Kiersten Eggleton, St. Albans; Natalyia Sayles, Capital; Mary Lyle Smith, George Washington

Top sixth person

Emily Bryant, senior guard, Winfield: There are other bench players with better numbers, more size and higher minutes, but forget all that when it comes to Bryant. Nearly every game — and this includes soccer games too – there are a couple of plays that Bryant will make, seemingly out of nowhere, that are key in the final result. If there was a heart and hustle award, Bryant may very well take that too and her nonstop motor and mental toughness carries more importance for the Class AA No. 2 Generals and their success than any box score could measure.

Other contenders: Aamyah Washington, George Washington; Daviya Leggett, South Charleston.

Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, ryan.pritt@wvgazettemail.com or follow him @RPritt on Twitter.