YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — To say Jasmine Thomas’ and Mecca Perkins’ friendship on and off the basketball court got off on the wrong foot would be like referring to Walter Cronkite as a newscaster.
Thomas, then a junior, transferred to Seoul American in the summer of 2011 from Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, Va., with a reputation as a seasoned forward that preceded her, a high school varsity and AAU veteran.
Perkins, also a junior, was the incumbent, part of a Falcons team that had won its second straight Far East Division I title the previous February. Perkins feared Thomas might take her job. Thomas sensed some jealousy.
“At first, she didn’t like me because they were hyping me up,” Thomas said.
“I think they were trying to make us compete with each other,” Perkins said.
But after the tension came to a head with early season losses to Seoul Foreign and Daegu last December, the two said they realized they could accomplish more by working with each other than being rivals.
Now, after going 23-7 and finishing sixth at last year’s Far East D-I tournament, the two seniors consider themselves the fastest of friends. Thomas is averaging 19 points and nine rebounds and Perkins 12 points and 11 boards for the Falcons, who’ve gotten off to a 4-0 start.
And they’re the faces of a team with a vastly different makeup than the guard-oriented D-I title teams of 2010 and ’11. Rather than the high-speed game of those years, the Falcons have become a half-court, post-player team.
“We have two bigs who are going to be very dominant; they control the game because they control the boards,” coach Jesse Smith said. “In the past, the guards controlled the tempo. We have a more balanced team this year.”
At 5-foot-11 and 6-foot, Thomas and Perkins are two of the taller girls players in the Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference Five-Cities Division. Playing a half-court set, veteran guard Hannah Nelson and a cadre of youngsters work the ball inside to the bigs for short-range shots.
“We set up a lot more plays” than the Falcons did two years ago, said Perkins, who along with Nelson are the two holdovers from those title teams.
“We do focus on the half-court game more because of the type of players we have,” Smith added.
But as similar as they are in stature, the two are also quite different in how they play. Thomas is the more mobile of the two, quicker and possesses an outside shot. Perkins is that tough-to-move opponent in the paint who gets many of her points on layups and offensive rebounds.
“They complement each other,” Smith said, adding that despite their different styles, they bring a synergy and chemistry to the court where they can predict each other’s moves and read the tone in each other’s voices.
“We have each other’s backs out there,” Thomas said.
“We kind of memorize how each other plays. And we always talk to each other on the court,” Perkins said.
And off the court they do virtually everything together, from shopping to watching movies to even the occasional homework. “We’re like best friends now,” Thomas said.
They don’t score points in bunches as their title-team predecessors did, but Smith and his players refuse to engage in comparisons with players now gone.
“There was a lot of pressure” last season for the Falcons to live up to lofty title expectations, Perkins said. “We had to try not to be like them, but be like us, to do the things we could do to be successful.”
Thomas never saw those teams play, but “I heard about them. I just had to play my game. Now, it’s time for us to do what we can do.”
The loss to Seoul Foreign last Dec. 3 was the Falcons’ first KAIAC regular-season defeat in 137 games and the first to the Crusaders in 25 years — and a huge, tear-jerking eye-opener for the team. “It was a blessing,” Perkins said.
Since then, Smith has steered his team in a slow learning curve, using the KAIAC regular season and tournament as platforms so the team can gradually become better and peak at Far East.
“By that time, I’m hoping they’ll be where I think they can be,” Smith said.
Every step of the way, the Falcons say they’ll look to their twin pillars as their tower of strength.
“They’ve grown so much since last season,” Nelson said. “I know this year, they can lead us to take it all.”