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Girls basketball player of the year Bria Gaines of Bloom High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois, Friday, March 15, 2013. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Bria Gaines was so popular during her senior season at Bloom it seemed she always had two or three girls around her every time she was on the court.
Then again ...
“There was this one game against Kankakee,” the Beggars Pizza/SouthtownStar 2012-13 Player of the Year related. “It was after I had a cold and coach (Ron Newquist) took me out to get a breather.
“When I got back in this girl (on the other team) was like, ‘Uh, No. 12, your break wasn’t long enough. I think you need to go back and sit down.’ I was like, ‘OK,’ and started laughing.”
So it went on most nights for the 6-foot-2 center, who battled through the double- and triple-teams to average an area-leading 22.2 points and 15.6 rebounds per game, and also provide the Blazing Trojans with a solid 4.2 blocks per contest.
It was the second year in a row the Western Kentucky-bound Gaines was the Southland’s top scorer and rebounder.
“She was able to do it because of her work ethic,” Newquist said. “She worked on her individual game nonstop. The other thing is, even though she faced a lot of different defensive schemes, she would find ways to get the ball. We ran our offenses through her.”
Gaines has learned a lot in a short period of time.
While most high school stars start playing basketball at a young age, Gaines didn’t start playing until her eighth-grade year at Brookwood Junior High in Glenwood.
“People tried to get me to play but I was like, ‘No, it’s just not me,’ ” she said. “But there was a taller guy at school, and he was like, ‘You know, you should use your height,’ and told me all the good things that could happen for me. So I decided, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try.’ ”
Far from dominant, Gaines still impressed then-Bloom coach Marc Lopez enough that she got more than an invite to practice with the varsity on the first day of basketball her freshman year.
“I was a little nervous,” she said. “Lopez was like, ‘OK, put your bags down and warm up.’ I said, ‘Wait, I’m supposed to be with the freshmen.’ But he said, ‘No, you’re going to be playing with the varsity.’ I was like, ‘No, I want to be with the freshmen.’ But he said, ‘Go put your stuff down and start doing drills.’
“By the time my freshman year was over I was accustomed to playing with the older girls.”
Gaines soon would find her way onto the area leader boards. As a sophomore, she averaged 12.0 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. By then she also had started playing club ball for Newquist’s Wolverines organization. By the time Newquist was installed as the head coach at Bloom, the maturation of a dominator was in full swing.
“Before I joined the Wolverines I still had problems with positioning myself on the block,” Gaines said. “I had troubles with drop-steps. I had troubles with a lot of things until I started playing for the Wolverines.
“That extra help they gave me really made a difference. And in the beginning of my junior year, when I started picking up those 20-something points, I really started to gain confidence.”
Gaines’ breakout season in 2011-12 included 27.2 points and 15.6 rebounds per game. She had 27 points in their season finale, a regional semifinal loss to Mother McAuley that left the Blazing Trojans at 16-9.
In 2012-13, Gaines produced a double-double in every game except the last. In a 73-69 win over Hillcrest in the title game at the Hillcrest Holiday Classic, she had 22 points and 17 rebounds. Her 11 points and 14 rebounds against a collapsing Lincoln-Way East defense helped the Blazing Trojans end East’s five-year string of Class 4A regional titles.
That tall kid from Brookwood Junior High was right.
“My four years at Bloom? They meant excellence,” Gaines said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world. Going to Bloom has definitely changed my life.”