DECATUR — Mariah Shores didn't have to think long to answer a question about teammate Quincenia Jackson's ceiling.
"Oh yeah, she's going D1 for sure," Shores said.
D1 as in Division I — a dream landing spot for most athletes. It hasn't taken Jackson long to garner those kinds of thoughts about her potential. She's a 6-foot-1 sophomore averaging 15.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals while converting shots at a 64 percent clip for MacArthur (15-6, 7-3), which has won 12 straight games, including a tournament win at the Eisenhower Holiday Tournament.
After starting 3-6, the Generals have been red hot, and Jackson has been a key part of the turnaround. During the winning streak, she has games of: 12 points, 15 rebounds, five steals (Dec. 13 vs. Rochester), 16 points and 20 rebounds (Dec. 15 vs. Eisenhower), 17 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, three steals (Dec. 27 vs. Williamsville), 32 points, 13 rebounds and two steals (Dec. 28 vs. Urbana) and 23 points, 12 rebounds, two steals and a block (Dec. 29 vs. Champaign Central).
"At first, the way we started off the season was bad," Jackson said. "The more we’ve gone through the season, we started to listen to coach more and everything has started to smooth out."
She's already established herself as a premier post player in not only the Central State 8 Conference, but the area. Teams try to negate her impact on the floor by sending an extra defender to make life difficult in the post — often to no avail.
“She’s a tough kid, man, and she’s just getting used to learning how to play the game," MacArthur coach Michael Williams said. "She’s so used to going under the basket and getting offensive rebounds and putting them back. Now we’re trying to get her to learn how to seal and using footwork and using both hands to her game."
Even though Williams spotted Jackson as an eighth-grader during a SkyWalker All-Star Game and hoped she would come to MacArthur, he didn't clear a spot in the starting lineup right away for her.
Last year, Jackson, who is best known as 'Q' on the team, had to battle for her starting role. It's an iron-sharpening-iron situation with Jackson and Shores, the top post players on the team, though it wasn't always easy for Jackson to break into her role. In the process, she learned the value of her starting spot.
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"It was kind of tough," she said. "Sometimes I got kind of mad when I didn’t start, but I had to fight though it to earn a spot at the starting point."
Though it was tough, and she kept a patented smile that led Williams, who is known for his nicknames, to dub her as "Big Cheese" — a nickname she doesn't fully embrace, but accepts.
Williams is in a unique situation with the Generals. He's both winning now and re-tooling for future success with a young roster. He knew immediately that Jackson and fellow sophomore Taya Davis would be instrumental in leading the Generals on a revitalization tour before their careers are done, but it was equally important that they had the ability to push the players in front of them.
“I knew her and Taya were going to be a vital part of us changing this program around," Williams said. "We have good seniors in Jayda (Dees), Kierra (Smith-King), Kyyawna (Johnson) and Mariah (Shores), but we needed some fresh blood to come and push them. Q comes in and makes Mariah work every day and Taya puts those guards on notice that they’ve got to bring it every day."
Both Jackson and Shores see the value in being pushed in practice. Shores immediately recognized the strength and basketball IQ of Jackson when she entered the program. But there's also a mentor-mentee relationship between the two. Shores is there to lend a helping word to her understudy, who Williams called Ms. Pac Man for her work gobbling rebounds and draining layups in the Eisenhower tournament.
“It boosts my self esteem up," Jackson said of Shores. "When I’m down and miss a layup, she pushes me back up."
About that Division I potential that Shores sees in Jackson: Shores isn't alone.
Williams told the Herald & Review last week that Division I coaches have watched the sophomore play, and Jackson is putting in the work to get there. She'll get extra time in the gym and absorb every word Williams has to offer.
“I want to go to the next level, so I’ve got to listen," Jackson said.