Brihanna Jackson’s persistence to play college basketball
By Kyle LoJacono
Brihanna Jackson’s life has been all about basketball since she first took to the playground court near her house in third grade.
The 5-foot-4 combo guard can’t remember the last time she went more than a day without at least shooting by herself in a gym.
“I love how fast it is,” Jackson said. “It’s a fast-paced game. It’s exciting.”
For the former student of Freedom and Wiregrass Ranch high schools and current University of Central Florida (UCF) freshman, basketball has always been able to help relieve any pressure, stress or pain going on in her life.
“Basketball is like my way out,” Jackson said. “Whenever I have any problems going on I can shoot by myself or go play pickup with my friends.”
The last two years have proved to Jackson just how true those sentiments are.
Jackson began shining on the hard courts in seventh grade at Crystal River Middle in Citrus County and continued turning heads while attending Lecanto High as a freshman, sophomore and junior.
The Panthers made the playoffs during her last two years with the team. Jackson’s most productive campaign was 2008-09, when, as a sophomore, she led Lecanto to a 21-2 record while averaging 21 points, 4.1 steals, 3.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists.
While she was producing in basketball, she was struggling in the classroom. Her mother, Cathleen Grippe, asked family friend Warren Jones to allow Jackson to live with him in his Wesley Chapel home to get a change of scenery.
“I moved in with him, I started doing better at school and I got better at basketball too because he’s a coach,” Jackson said. “I learned a lot from him and he helped me mature as a person. … I don’t know if I’d be here without him. If I’d stayed where I was at I don’t know if I would have graduated, so I appreciate him doing what he did, and I do owe him a thank you for where I am today.”
Ironically, as her grades improved, her ability to play the game she loves was being compromised by factors out of her control.
Jackson moved to Pasco County in May 2010, the end of her junior year. She was briefly enrolled at Wesley Chapel High before learning that Jones’ residence was zoned for Wiregrass Ranch, where she began her senior season.
Jackson’s talent was well known throughout the area so much so that parents from rival teams began questioning if all Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) rules were being followed with her transfer.
The FHSAA was informed by “a number of concerned people” about Jackson’s movement to Pasco schools around the time the Bulls started their season, according to its investigation.
Jackson was able to play in Wiregrass Ranch’s first two games of the 2010-11 season, where she posted 30 points with five rebounds, five steals, four assists and two blocks.
Former Bulls coach Greg Finkel stopped playing Jackson after the FHSAA started its investigation, which found that she and Jones moved south of the county line into Freedom’s district in October 2010, a few weeks before the basketball season.
The final report also found that Jones and Finkel violated 10 FHSAA rules to try and keep Jackson playing at Wiregrass Ranch. She was not allowed to play another game her senior season, Finkel was forced to resign as the Bulls coach and the school was eventually fined $6,275 and its athletic programs were placed on probation.
Jackson was found to have had no direct involvement in the violations, so she was allowed to play flag football at Freedom. She quarterbacked the Patriots to a 10-1 record, with the only loss coming in the district finals.
Jackson showed her athletic ability as a quarterback, breaking Freedom records with 1,023 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns and picking off 23 passes as a defensive back. She also threw for 1,289 yards with another 18 scores. She was named The Laker/Lutz News Flag Football Player of the Year in 2011, but it wasn’t basketball.
Jackson said she felt like her dream of playing college ball was slipping away because of the FHSAA investigation, but soon realized high school was only one avenue for getting to the next level.
“I still had AAU, and that’s one of the big ways to get exposure,” Jackson said. “I stayed focused and kept working hard. I did what I had to do in school so I’d have the chance to play in college.”
She started playing for the Suncoast Basketball Club after moving south, but said she had almost no interest from colleges after graduating from Freedom. Instead of giving up, she decided to attend the IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton, where she trained during the 2011-12 school year to take her game to the next level.
“I focused on a lot of skill work,” Jackson said. “I had all that extra time to spend in the gym.”
She had a breakthrough while playing in a tournament in Miami last October.
It was at that tournament where UCF coach Joi Williams first noticed Jackson.
“I saw her in a tournament last year, and she stood out right away,” Williams said. “I went to the gym early that morning watching her team play, and she was someone everyone noticed.”
Jackson, who is studying criminal justice, said other schools picked up on her at the same event, but she quickly decided that she wanted to be a Knight.
“It’s a big school, a good school,” Jackson said. “It’s everything I’ve always wanted. It has the highest level of basketball. It’s a great atmosphere. I love it here.”
Williams said Jackson’s determination to play shows the kind of fighter she is.
“I admire her for that and how much commitment she has to the game,” Williams said. “She’s probably one of the fiercest competitors that we have on our team. I’m excited about her future and what she’s going to be able to do before her career ends.
“She’s a player who will be able to contribute this year,” Williams continued. “How much is really going to be up to her commitment, but from the things that we’ve seen she’s going to be a player who can help us a lot this year.”
Jackson said the training for her first season at UCF is much tougher than anything else she’s gone through on the court, but that only makes her hungrier to improve.
“I’m up for the challenge,” Jackson said. “I make it through the workouts just like everyone else.”
Her route to college ball was not traditional, but Jackson said what she’s gone through the last two years has made her a stronger person.
“I learned to never give up,” Jackson said. “There’s going to be ups and downs in your life, and you’ve got to fight through it. You’ve got to stay strong, and everything will work out in your benefit. I wouldn’t change the way anything went down because, if I did, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”
Jackson and the Knights tip off in an exhibition Nov. 2 at home against Lynn University before starting the regular season by hosting Georgia State University Nov. 9. Both contests start at 7 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
I am so PROUD of my granddaughter,Bri…..Her dream will take her as far as she wants to go……I will follow her accomplishments as long as I am able….I ONLY WANT THE BEST FOR BRI!