Small but mighty: Like St. Thomas More, Barnes doesn’t let size stop her

Ravens senior DahNaija Barnes is resilient and — more often than not — finds a way to come out on top. (Delaware State News file photo)

NEWARK — St. Thomas More was clinging to a three-point lead and only a handful of seconds remained.

But Ravens’ guard DahNaija Barnes was trapped by three Hodgson defenders at midcourt.

The senior didn’t panic, though, pivoting and getting the ball to teammate Sophia Stafford. Stafford quickly passed the ball to Jessica Simmons, who went in for an uncontested layup.

Only then could the Ravens finally celebrate their hard-earned 52-47 victory over Hodgson in the DIAA girls’ basketball state quarterfinals on Sunday afternoon.

“It was one of those ‘deep-breath’ moments,” said St. Thomas More coach Crystal Gordon. “You’ve been holding your breath for a long time — almost like when you’re underwater and you finally come up for that breath. Air is there and you know you’re breathing again.

“It was that feeling.”

“I knew there was only a couple seconds left on the clock,” said Barnes. “I just had to try to advance the ball. It was a great feeling.”

St. Thomas More girls varsity basketball head coach Crystal Gordon

Gordon and the Ravens usually feel pretty good when the ball is in Barnes’ hands and the game is on the line.

The senior is one of the top players for fifth-seeded St. Thomas More (16-4), which makes the program’s first appearance in the state semifinals on Friday when it faces top-seeded Caravel (17-5) at 8 p.m. at the Carpenter Center.

There’s something fitting about Barnes being a leader for St. Thomas More.

She only stands 5-foot tall. But, like the small Magnolia school she represents, Barnes is resilient and — more often than not — finds a way to come out on top.

“Size doesn’t mean anything to me,” said Barnes. “It’s all about the heart. (People say) ‘She’s so little, she’s so little.’ But I’m pretty tough. I just play my game.”

“She has a chip on her shoulder,” said Gordon. “I guess when people tell you you’re too small long enough, you start to play big. I told her, ‘It’s not really your size, it’s the way you play ­­­— it’s your stature as a person.’”

Barnes wasn’t always so confident, though.

She only transferred to St. Thomas More midway through her sophomore year after playing for Archbishop Carroll (Pa.), Barnes played the final eight games of the season as the Ravens reached the state quarterfinals.

But Barnes was also a pretty quiet kid at first.

St. Thomas More’s DahNaija Barnes gets fouled by Sussex Central’s Raeonna Stratton in the first quarter at St. Thomas More. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“I wasn’t sure where she would fit,” said Gordon. “But when I got to know her and watch her in practice, I knew that we would have to develop her on and off the court.

“This is what we’re here for — to make sure they grow, to make sure they have the opportunities that they need. She’s done the work in school. She’s matured — on and off the court. It’s great. It’s awesome.”

This season Barnes is averaging 13.5 points, 4.0 assists and 3.1 steals per game for St. Thomas More. In the win over Hodgson, she collected 15 points, four assists and a pair of steals.

Maybe Barnes’ biggest play in the game came when she sank a long-range three-point heave just before the first quarter ended. Barnes ended up on the ground after the shot that pulled the Ravens back within 18-13.

“This year I feel more confident in myself,” said Barnes, who plans to continue her career at Bloomsburg, Pa University. “It’s just self-esteem — building it up. I had to adjust to the program but now I’m adjusted and we’re rolling.

“It was difficult at first. But, as time went on, we just became a family.”

“When she first came, she didn’t have confidence in her shooting,” said Gordon. “She actually had a pretty good basketball IQ. But we wanted to help her to attack the basket — to be a shooter as well as have the confidence to be a leader on the floor.

“She’s kind of quiet. So, for her, being vocal on the floor is so much better.”

St. Thomas More will be considerable underdogs on Friday against No. 1 Caravel. The Ravens just lost to the Buccaneers, 65-31, on Feb. 14.

Barnes netted 11 points in that contest, with a pair of three-pointers.

Then again, not many people would have predicted that St. Thomas More — which suits up only eight players — would still be alive in the state tournament.

“It feels great — the first time,” said Barnes. “It feels good. I just wanted to get to the next round as a team. That’s what we did.

“This year we just had to work hard. We’re ready (to face Caravel) this time. … We’re trying to make a name for ourselves and that’s what we’re doing. St. Thomas More is on the map now.”

“I feel like kind of ‘The Big Green’ — the nothings from nowhere,” joked Gordon, referring to the movie. “I feel like that. We’re just happy to be in the conversation.

“A lot of people don’t understand when you come from nothing and start to become better … but it’s progress.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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