“If this were a year from now, Scott High would’ve won this game,” I said to one of the Lady Highlander fathers after Scott fell to Kingston, 81-76, in overtime on Monday.
“If this were a year for now,” he corrected me, “We’d be playing for first place and not third place.”
Ambitious? Perhaps. Even though Scott High is moving up a classification and into a new district that will arguably be weaker than the current District 4-AA, I’m not ready to pencil the Lady Highlanders in as district title contenders in 2022 until I see if they can find a way to replace the scoring they’ll be losing when seniors Julia Butts and Callie Carson graduate.
Butts and Carson, who combined for 39 of the Lady Highlanders’ 76 points in Monday’s game against Kingston, are easily the team’s leading scorers, and the team’s only consistent scorers. The latter may be even more important than the former.
But you can’t blame folks in Scott County for feeling optimistic about the Lady Highlanders’ growth under first-year head coach Jake Wright. They’re 6-16 as they head into Friday’s game at Northview Academy — which will be a true David vs. Goliath challenge — but they’re probably the best 6-win team in the state, and they’re not even close to the same team that lost by 45 to Oneida back on the weekend before Thanksgiving.
My assessment of where the Lady Highlanders stand now vs. where they might be standing a year for now is based on an assumption that this is a team that still needs to learn how to win. For all that Scott High did right in Monday’s game against Kingston, the Lady Highlanders still let a 10-point lead slip away in the second half, missed just enough free throws in the fourth quarter to give Kingston a crack to squeeze through, and gave the Yellow Jackets a good look at a game-tying 3-point shot in the corner as the final horn sounded in regulation.
Much of that can be chalked up to the same things that costed Scott High on Friday, when they went to Fulton for a semifinal game and were turned away in a 14-point defeat: On Friday, Fulton walked with some swagger, looking like a team that expected to win. On Monday, Kingston played the fourth quarter with some swagger, looking like a team that expected to win even though it had trailed the entire game.
The Lady Highlanders don’t walk with much swagger; not yet, anyway. They’re still searching for confidence, for an expectation that they’re going to win when they step on the floor. That’ll come, but it takes time. Scott High hasn’t won many meaningful games in more than two decades — which is longer than any player currently associated with the program, has been alive.
But there have been flashes. Sophomore Annalyne Woodward is transforming into a legitimate post presence. With a full summer’s work ahead of her, she may well enter her junior campaign in the Lady Highlanders’ new Class AAA district as one of that league’s top post players. Julie Lewallen, a rising senior, got the opportunity to slide into the starting lineup when Scott lost Zoey Terry to an ACL injury, and she scored 12 points in the third quarter alone on Monday, en route to a career-high 16.
Other players have shown flashes, too. Alaina Duncan, another rising senior, had a 14-point game earlier this season. And still others.
The final chapter of the 2020-2021 season is yet to be written. The book may close on this season on Friday. Or maybe it won’t. There is a reason these games are played on the court and not on paper, after all. Beating Northview Academy seems like a monumental challenge for this Lady Highlander team, but no matter what happens on Friday, that game will not define this season any more than the overall won-lost record defines this season. What defines this season is that the Lady Highlanders recorded the most district wins that they’ve had in 10 years, and their highest regular season district finish in 25 years.
What defines this season is the steps forward that this team has taken under its new head coach. It’s going to take some time to get to where they want to be. It’s not inconceivable that next season could even be a slight step back, if Scott High isn’t able to replace the point production of its seniors. But you don’t have to have 20/20 vision to see the progress that’s being made in Huntsville. And it’s a fun process to watch unfold.
Oneida 87, Wartburg 30
You couldn’t help but wonder: What happens if Oneida enters Monday’s semifinal game looking ahead to Harriman. The Indians just lost to the Blue Devils in the regular season finale, and would like nothing more than to avenge that loss — which spoiled what would’ve been an undefeated regular season in district play — in the district championship game.
Sure, Oneida should take care of its business against Wartburg. But the Indians, for whatever reason, have had more games that have been relatively close against District 3-A teams this season than one might have expected from a team that has state championship aspirations. And, on the other end of the court paces a guy — Wartburg’s Joe Layne — who has long been regarded as one of the best high school basketball coaches in East Tennessee.
So what if?
Those doubts were quickly put to rest Monday evening. Oneida came out firing on all cylinders, and the game was over before it had hardly gotten started. It was 18-3 after the first quarter. It was 47-12 by halftime. Anyone hoping for a dramatic, close game was utterly disappointed.
By the time the final horn sounded, Oneida had utterly demolished Wartburg, 87-30.
It’s not very often that you see a No. 1 vs. No. 4 game decided by a 57-point margin of victory. The fact that it happened against the team that is Oneida’s biggest basketball rival made Monday’s outcome even more of a brow-raiser.
To put it into perspective, the largest margin of victory by either team in this Oneida-Wartburg series in the past 20 years, prior to Monday night, was 39 points. That was a Wartburg win over Oneida back in 2015. Oneida’s biggest win over Wartburg in the past 20 years was 34 points earlier this season. Prior to that it was 26 points, way back in 2002.
The Indians’ 57-point win over Wartburg on Monday may well have been the biggest win by either program in this series’ history. We can’t conclusively say that without digging through the archives, but what we can conclusively say is that Oneida has now won eight in a row against its biggest rival, dating back to February 2018. And if you’re wondering whether the Indians’ stranglehold on the district is going to diminish after they graduate their all-state duo of Nathan Bowling and Kolby Morgan? Probably not. In the fourth quarter, with both teams playing their youngsters, the Indians out-scored Wartburg 17-1 to put an exclamation point on the victory.
It’s been hard to put a finger on why Oneida stumbled a little bit as it neared the finish line of the regular season, with losses to York Institute and Campbell County in addition to Harriman. Some said the Indians missed the energy and hustle of Noah Buttram, who is out with an injury. Some said the problem might be something else entirely.
But whatever that problem might have been, it sure looked like the Indians had it figured out on Monday, as they strolled to the dominating win. A team that can win by 57 points in a district semifinal game is a team that strikes fear into the hearts of opponents. The Indians’ next opponent, Harriman, won’t be too scared; the Blue Devils have already proven they can beat Oneida. But can they do it if the Indians are firing on all cylinders? We might find out on Wednesday. A loss to the Blue Devils would certainly give the Indians a bit of a tougher path to the state tournament. But, for now at least, Oneida sure looks like a team that is set to make some noise in Murfreesboro next month.
Scott High 65, Alcoa 54
After the wheels came off against Fulton in the in the District 4-AA semifinals on Friday, a beat writer for the Maryville Daily Times noted that Alcoa had some things to fix before moving on to the district consolation game.
As Monday’s third place game moved through the second quarter, it sure looked like the Tornadoes hadn’t figured out its broken pieces. Scott High was dominating the game, up 20-2. With just six minutes remaining before halftime, the Tornadoes still hadn’t scored a field goal; their only points had come on a pair of free throws in the first quarter.
The final six minutes of that second quarter looked different. Alcoa battled back to put itself back into the game, trailing by 10 at the half. But Scott High went ahead by 15 in the third quarter, then coasted to an 11-point win.
It was the Highlanders’ second win over Alcoa this season, but the last one required a desperation shot at the buzzer from near mid-court just to get to overtime. This time, Scott High looked much like one of the better teams in Tennessee Class AA basketball, which is where the Highlanders hoped they would be when late February rolled around.
Scott High was coming off a 16-point loss to Kingston in the district semifinals on Friday. The Highlanders had rolled into that game playing their best basketball of the season, winners of eight consecutive games. Maybe it was the rowdy crowd that packed the gymnasium in Roane County. Maybe it was simply Kingston’s all-state-caliber backcourt. Whatever it was, the Yellow Jackets had Scott High’s number, after the Highlanders had played to within a final possession of Kingston during both of the teams’ regular season meetings.
So it was good to see Scott High bounce back in such grand fashion against Alcoa. District 4-AA is one of the best Class AA districts in the state — maybe the best, top to bottom. The No. 4 team from this district should have a good shot of going on the road to upset the District 3-AA champion on Saturday. Likewise, if District 4 were paired against District 5-AA in the region tournament, it’s likely that the four-seed from District 4 would have a great chance to knock off the top seed from District 5.
So Scott High didn’t need to beat Alcoa on Monday to put itself in contention to win a regional quarterfinal on Saturday. But winning Monday’s game sure didn’t hurt. The Highlanders will now hit the road on Saturday having won 9 of their last 10, and presumably having regained a bit of the confidence they had going into Friday’s district semifinal game.
Scott High’s likely destination on Friday is Knox Carter, though the Hornets are playing well enough to upset Gatlinburg-Pittman in Tuesday’s District 3-AA championship game. If Strawberry Plains is indeed Scott’s destination this weekend, it’ll be a rematch of a game that the Highlanders won on a Trey Morrow buzzer-beater last month.
Scott was fortunate to escape Carter with a win last time. Morrow’s shot wasn’t a miss-and-go-to-overtime situation. It was a miss-and-go-home scenario. But the Highlanders didn’t play particularly good basketball when they were at Carter last time. They’re playing considerably better basketball now, and would perhaps even be considered a slight favorite to win Saturday’s game.
While Carter could still win on Tuesday and send Scott High to Gatlinburg on Saturday, the fact that a Scott-Carter rematch is even a possibility is intriguing. Carter sprung what many would’ve considered a sizable upset in the District 3 semifinals, defeating Union County by 13. The Patriots had lost only five games all season, and while Carter defeated them by five back in mid December, Union County had rolled the Hornets by 30 points just a couple of weeks ago.
If the Highlanders are able to beat Carter (or Gatlinburg, as the case may be) in the opening round of region play, Scott High’s opponent in the region semifinals would probably be Kingston. The Yellow Jackets will draw either Union County or Northview Academy — probably Northview, depending on the outcome of Tuesday’s third place game in District 3 — on Saturday.
A grudge match between two bitter rivals with a substate berth on the line would be a fun way to bring this 2020-2021 basketball season to a climax. Before that can even be looked forward to, both Scott and Kingston will have to win on Saturday, and that won’t be an easy task — especially for the Highlanders, who will have to do it on the road. Winning on the road hasn’t proven easy for Tennessee high school basketball teams this postseason (Scott High was one of just 11 road teams, out of 72 playing, to win on Monday). But the possibility just goes to show you: losing in the district tournament isn’t an end-all in high school basketball.