Kremer: Lumpkin, Ekhomu Put JCA Girls Basketball on Map

Watch: Joliet Catholic Academy's Jasmine Lumpkin, Nicole Ekhomu and assistant coach Chris Smith talk basketball during a break from an Angels' workout earlier this week.

Jasmine and Nicole.

One boasts a 3.6 grade-point average and plans to work as a pediatrician or physical therapist. The other plays drums in her church choir and marches to her own beat.

Two hard-working, nice girls. Two mean basketball players.

Jasmine Lumpkin and Nicole Ekhomu would be standouts in almost any arena all by themselves. Together, they are the force behind Joliet Catholic Academy’s girls basketball renaissance. The court is their easel, the place where they bring art to life.

Lumpkin and Ekhomu.

One uses her size to create mismatches down low or on the wing. The other is a two-guard scoring machine. Both have attracted attention from Division I college scouts while helping JCA (13-1) race out of the blocks during the first half of an about-face season.

The Angels were 9-16 last winter. Now, they are 3-0 in East Suburban Catholic Conference play heading into Saturday’s game at Nazareth Academy. Tip-off is at 4 p.m. in LaGrange Park.

And they are fast-gaining notoriety because of Ekhomu and Lumpkin.

Ekhomu, a 5-foot-9 freshman, busted loose for 38 points in the Angels’ historic 73-70 victory over Fenwick on Dec. 12. Lumpkin, a 6-foot junior, added 19 points and 18 rebounds in the thriller. Afterward, Joliet Catholic Academy coach Ed Schodrof spotted her wiping a tear away from her eye—and not because the win was the first for the Angels over the Friars in program history.

“I asked her why she was crying,” Schodrof said. “She said, ‘Because I played a terrible first half.’ ”

If that doesn’t tell you who Lumpkin is and what she is all about, then consider the comments from JCA assistant coach Chris Smith. He calls Lumpkin the Angels’ go-to girl because of her varsity experience.

“I think the biggest thing that separates her from most of the competition is her athletic ability for her size,” Smith said. “She’s a 6-foot wing player with an explosive first step. She’s still developing her jump shot. As she gets more comfortable taking her jump shot, you’ll see an even bigger step up in her game.”

Ekhomu plays alongside her older sister, Christina, in the backcourt for the Angels—but takes a back seat to no one. Bret McCormick, publisher of All-Star Girls Report, ranks Ekhomu as the No. 5 freshman in the country.

“It’s not only her athletic ability, but the fact she has mastered the mid-range jump shot, which is a lost art in basketball,” Smith said. “She has that mid-range ability as well as the ability to hit the three-point shot and can attack off the dribble. Her overall skills—she is by far the most talented girl I’ve ever had to work with.”

And Smith has had some major talents to work with in his not too distant past. He coached Ariel Massengale and Morgan Tuck when they played AAU ball with his Bolingbrook Panthers. The two later turned Bolingbrook into state championship timber. Massengale is now playing at Tennessee and Tuck at UConn.

JCA rounds out its starting lineup with Mary Susan Rouse, a 5-8 senior forward, and Tre McClain, a 5-9 senior center. Lauren Vanisko and Amina Green are two of the top players on an evolving bench.

Both have come up with 12 steals as the Angels have set themselves up for the excitement of ESCC action and, further down the road, postseason play. Vanisko also has poured in a team-high 14 three-pointers.

“I try not to measure a season directly by wins and losses,” Schodrof said. “My goal always is to max out what we have—whatever that means record-wise. But, frankly, no, I did not expect to be 13-1 at this juncture. We’ve won some close games. But we’re still eating humble pie. We know there are a number of good teams ahead on the schedule in this conference.”

Lumpkin and Ekhomu give JCA a chance to compete on a level the Angels rarely have reached in Schodrof’s five seasons as the head coach. He inherited a team that went 2-25 the year before his arrival on the scene. He has worked to build from the ground up.

“13-1?” Lumpkin questioned. “I actually did expect that. Coming into the season, I knew we had a pretty good team and I knew if we worked hard in practice we’d come out and take care of business. So, I’m proud of my team.”

Lumpkin is a 3.6 student who is looking to find a college that fits her academic and athletic needs. She wants to be a pediatrician or physical therapist. She averages 17.4 points and 11.6 rebounds.

She is shooting at a .509 clip. And, at times, she’s the No. 2 option on offense because of Ekhomu’s meteoric rise. Ekhomu is averaging 16.9 points, 3.9 steals and 3.3 rebounds.

Still, nobody could have seen her 38-point barrage against Fenwick coming. Or could they?

This is a girl, after all, who started receiving college scholarship offers in seventh grade. She he has remained grounded, due in no small part to her upbringing. Her grandfather is the owner and pastor of First Devine Providence Baptist Church on the West Side of Chicago. She plays drums in the church choir—and taps a dance on JCA opponents, too.

“Yeah, it was a pretty good feeling at the end when we pulled out the win,” Ekhomu said of topping Fenwick. “My teammates were there to help to me a lot, especially Jasmine (Lumpkin) and my sister, Christina. It was a great feeling. We were down at one point. It looked like it was going downhill. But we pulled it out.”

Her uncle, Joseph Ballard, pushes her to new heights when they’re paired up in the gym. The two talk about what separates good players from great players.

“In the game of basketball, me and my uncle have this conversation, it’s usually the ‘3’ or you’re going to the basket,” Ekhomu said. “So, he said for me to be a great player I have to work on my mid-range (skills). Other people don’t do it. They’re working on just the ‘3’ or driving to the basket.”

Dynamic duo? JCA's Nicole Ekhomu and Jasmine Lumpkin have worked to put the Angels on the basketball map. One day soon they might well be modeling the capes of DC comics superheroine Wonder Woman. For now, they’re just super girls.











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