Easter baskets add up for North Lincoln
This is going to be her year, Antaijah Easter thought before the North Lincoln High Knights girls basketball season started. And early on, it was.
Easter, a sophomore forward, averaged 21 points per game in the Knights’ first three contests. High hopes abounded for North Lincoln and its rising young star.
Then in a non-conference game against Catawba Bandys on Dec. 2, those high hopes – along with Easter herself – came crashing to a halt. Always a hustling, unselfish player, Easter saw an opportunity early in the game to make an impact. She dove for a loose ball and collided head-first with an opponent sending Easter to the emergency room with a concussion.
Without their primary inside presence, the reeling Knights lost to Bandys, 82-63. A 3-0 start turned into a three-game losing streak as Easter recovered from her injury. After such a promising start to the season, Easter – always known as a rebounding threat – was forced to watch her team fail after the loss of one of its leaders.
“And I’ve never really been hurt before,” Easter said. She had never broken a bone, let alone gotten knocked out. “There’s been times when I’ve hit my head really hard on the court, but I never got a concussion.
“It was just that time.”
Easter couldn’t recall much of the game, or anything leading up to the collision. And while getting knocked out and missing four games tested Easter’s resolve, it made her tougher.
“My doctor told me I could shoot around a little bit,” Easter said. “But I couldn’t run. I hated it. I hated being on the bench not being able to play. It was hard having to watch my team lose and not be able to help.”
Easter sat out the Knights’ 76-58 win over rival Lincolnton on Dec. 16, the one game she had circled on her schedule. While that made her recovery harder, Easter didn’t let it get to her outside the gym. She never missed a beat in the classroom. Her injury happened on a Friday, and she was back in class on Monday.
Once Easter was cleared to practice, she returned to the court with renewed vigor. The Knights’ next contest – a road game at Cherryville on Dec. 20 – marked her return to action. But being a 21 point-per-game scorer again wasn’t as easy as she thought.
“I got winded really easily,” Easter admitted. “I wasn’t myself. I was missing rebounds and getting tired.” Not that the stat sheet agreed. Easter’s 18 points and nine rebounds led to a 52-37 Knights victory.
Easter admitted that having the support of her North Lincoln teammates made the comeback all the more special. While she had no recollection of it, Easter said her teammates let her know they visited her in the emergency room after she left the school. When she returned to her spot in the starting lineup, Easter said the warm welcome she received was greatly appreciated.
“They were happy to have me back,” Easter said of her teammates. “I was just so glad to be playing again and they supported me the whole time.”
From then on, Easter said, it was back to being full-throttle in practice and games. While most players would be a bit hesitant to dive for a loose ball or fight tooth-and-nail for a rebound after such an incident, Easter never changed her philosophy: go for every loose ball, play good defense, rebound and help the team win.
“I might think about it a second now before I (go for a loose ball),” Easter said. “But I’ll always do it because that’s how I play.”
North Lincoln followed Easter’s enthusiastic lead perfectly. The Knights captured four of their next five games, while the team reasserted itself as a threat in the competitive Southern Piedmont 1A/2A conference.
Easter proved to be the driving force behind the Knights’ resurgence, but the return to contention for the league crown wasn’t all Easter noticed after she returned. Her appreciation for the game had also grown.
“I’m always going to play hard now, because you never know when you’ll get hurt,” Easter said. “Or if you’ll ever play again. I noticed when I was out that I hated it.
“Sometimes I’d lollygag around and not play my best, and then I got hurt. So (the injury) encouraged me to play harder.”
Easter admitted getting back on the court meant even more than winning or losing. But the win-at-all-costs attitude Easter displays while a part of the Knights wasn’t something she developed after she came back from injury. Instead, it was something that was apparent from the first time she stepped on a court.
When Easter was nine, her mother asked her if she had any interest in playing basketball. Then a student at Pumpkin Center Elementary, Easter got her start in the game by playing on an outdoor court when she wasn’t in school. Once she developed a knack for the sport, Easter participated in recreation league games and joined an AAU team.
Easter said her first AAU coach, Joe Young, helped her gain experience as a player. But Young left an impact on Easter’s life in more ways than just being her coach. When he referred to Easter, Young had trouble pronouncing “Antaijah,” so he had to think of another name to call his newest team member.
“The first thing he thought of was “Ace,” so that’s what he’s always called me,” Easter said. “And the name stuck. He called me that when I was nine, and I still go by it a lot even now.”
These days, whether Easter is called Antaijah or Ace, things are coming up roses for the Knights’ sophomore sensation. Easter – who still plays basketball in the off-season for AAU team Carolina Express – enters a Friday, Jan. 20, game against Cherryville averaging 16.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. But it’s not her individual numbers that Easter said has made the biggest jump since she came back from her concussion. Instead, it’s the potential her team shows.
“I think we can win the conference and go far in the state playoffs,” Easter said. “That’s been our goal. I’m just glad to be back and helping us get there.”