For three days, all four local teams and 12 others battled it out at the South Fork Physical Therapy Christmas Classic at Oneida. In no particular order, here are the nine main takeaways:
1. Back on track?
Scott High entered the 2021-2022 season with hopes of at least a substate appearance — and maybe more. For a while, it looked like the Highlanders were in good shape to achieve their goals. Then came a bit of a stumble that started with a 67-63 loss at Halls on Dec. 3.
By the time a short-handed Clinton roared back from 16 down to beat the Highlanders 51-49 on Dec. 17, Scott had lost three of six in a two-week stretch. Not that it’s ever gone off the rails. The Highlanders’ three losses were to really good teams, and each was by four points or less. Still, it just didn’t feel like Scott was playing up to its potential. And even though the Highlanders beat Woodberry-Forest to open the South Fork Physical Therapy Christmas Classic, they didn’t play particularly well against Oneida in the semifinals, struggling a little to finally put the game away in the fourth quarter.
Scott High needed a game to re-energize itself and its season, and Wednesday’s win over Powell felt like that game. No doubt, Panthers coach Gary Barnes would say his team played poorly in the championship game of the SFPT tournament. And they did. But maybe the Highlanders had a little something to do with that. Winning by 21 over a really good Class 4A team was quite a statement for Scott, something to build on heading into the Christmas break.
The Highlander seniors did exactly what they were expected to do in the SFPT tournament. Trey Morrow was Trey Morrow, Luke West was Luke West, and even though Dalton Prewitt doesn’t often get mentioned in the same breath as the other two, he did what he does best: play disruptive defense and score at opportune times. But perhaps the best news for the Highlanders was the play of Scott Jeffers. The junior has slid into a starting role as Scott coach Jordan Jeffers attempts to maximize his team’s offensive output by moving to a four-guard lineup, and he played what was undoubtedly the best game of his high school days against Oneida on Tuesday. Throw in a double-digit offensive performance by junior post Grey Todd in the championship game against Powell, and all five Scott High starters are performing at a high level. That’s good news heading into a really tough tournament at Maryville between Christmas and New Year’s.
The SFPT tournament was really costly for local girls’ basketball teams, as both Oneida and Scott High lost a key player — both, ironically, against Sunbright.
The Lady Highlanders’ Annalyne Woodward went down with a knee injury during Scott’s game against Sunbright on Monday, while the Lady Indians’ Braelyn Russ suffered a knee injury during Oneida’s game against Sunbright on Wednesday.
Both players went down awkwardly — Scott High coach Jake Wright would later say his immediate concern was that Woodward had broken her leg, while it was apparent right away that Russ had probably torn her ACL.
Russ will learn next week whether doctors’ next fears are confirmed. If she did, in fact, tear her ACL, she will obviously miss the remainder of the season and most or all of the spring travel ball season before hopefully being able to return by the start of summer camps in June. Woodward will have to wait a bit longer before her own MRI. But there’s at least a chance — and maybe a good chance — that her injury isn’t as significant. If it isn’t, it’s possible that Woodward could be back in four-to-six weeks.
It’s a tough situation, all the way around. Woodward, a junior, is an integral part of the Lady Highlander squad. It’s tough to pin down exactly who is Scott’s most valuable player, since different players rise to the occasion on different nights. But Woodward is certainly a key contributor, and she was in the midst of the best game of her career when the injury occurred. She had scored 10 first quarter points to lead a Lady Highlander comeback, and had a career-high 16 points when she suffered the injury early in the fourth quarter.
Russ, meanwhile, has emerged as Oneida’s second leading scorer as a sophomore. She’s become especially effective as a perimeter threat, and hit four 3-pointers in her last game, which was against Powell. Oneida is already without one of its starters from the first of the season in senior Caroline Keeton, who is also dealing with a nagging knee injury. It’s next-man-up for Marv West’s Lady Indians, but at this point Oneida — which is also without freshman Lydia Kline, who wouldn’t have started but would have contributed and is also rehabbing a knee injury — is starting to grow perilously thin from a depth standpoint.
3. Oneida’s toughness
Don’t sleep on Oneida.
That should be the message that every Class A coach in East Tennessee takes away from the Indians’ performance in the SFPT tournament. The Indians’ record is 7-5, but their five losses actually speak louder than their seven wins.
Here’s the thing: Oneida may have played the toughest schedule in Class A basketball to this point. And here’s another thing: The Indians have played everybody to the wire since a 71-50 loss at Campbell County on Nov. 29.
The Indians only won one of three in the Christmas tournament, and their win over Seymour was far from impressive; they struggled to put the Eagles away in the final stages of the game.
But Oneida’s performances against Scott High and Pickett County were impressive. The Indians were very much in the game in the fourth quarter against a Highlander team that has state tournament aspirations. And they were very much in the game in the fourth quarter against a Bobcat team that many think is not only good enough to get to Murfreesboro but maybe good enough to win the whole shooting match.
Oneida coach Jacob King doesn’t shy away from expectations for his team. Despite a short and very young roster, King thinks his team is good enough to get to the state tournament. And, at this point, it’s hard to doubt him. At the very least, it looks like Oneida is good enough to win Region 2-A. And if the Indians can do that, and host a substate game to avoid Hampton in the Class A sectionals, all bets are off.
4. Can the Lady Indians beat Sunbright?
It’s a question we posed to Rusty Yaden earlier in the SFPT tournament, before it was obvious that his team would face Oneida in Wednesday’s third place game: Is Oneida capable of taking you down?
Yaden didn’t hesitate: “Yes, they are,” he said.
And he’s right, as Oneida showed by taking Sunbright to overtime in Wednesday’s game.
The Lady Tigers ultimately prevailed, 63-56, but Oneida took them to the wire. Suddenly, it’s apparent that Sunbright — the preseason favorite to win District 3-A and perhaps get to the state tournament for the first time in program history — is in for a dog-fight once we get into the heart of district play.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Oneida’s Marv West consistently over-achieves more than any other girls’ coach around. And Coalfield — which has already beaten Oneida — is also lurking.
The Lady Indians battled back from eight points down in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game, forcing overtime when Kelsey Pike hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Sunbright is battling a lot of sickness, but to be fair, so are a lot of other teams. And Oneida was playing without a key starter in Russ, who went down with the knee injury early in the game.
If December has taught us anything, it is that February is going to be a lot of fun in District 3-A.
5. Pike’s big week
It’s hard to pit girls players vs. boys players and compare their accomplishments. The games are simply too different. But if you were looking for a tournament MVP, there’s probably little doubt that Scott High’s Trey Morrow had the biggest week on the boys’ side — which is no surprise. And there’s also little doubt that Oneida’s Kelsey Pike had the biggest week on the girls’ side.
That’s especially impressive because there were some really good girls’ players in the gym at Oneida during the tournament — like Powell’s Reagan Trumm, for example. But Pike scored 30 twice during the tournament — first in a win over Monterey on Monday, and again in a game against Sunbright on Wednesday, when she hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime.
If we’re being completely fair, Pike only had eight points in a game against Trumm’s Panthers on Tuesday, while Trumm scored 28. But Pike’s big-moment awareness against a district foe like Sunbright cannot be understated. It’s unlikely that Rusty Yaden through his entire defensive arsenal at Pike during a Christmas tournament game, but let’s state the unstated: If she scores 30 in any district game, the Lady Indians are going to win far more often than not.
6. Looking for answers
Scott High’s Jake Wright didn’t mince words Tuesday evening, calling Wednesday’s game against Monterey a “must win” for his team.
The Lady Highlanders entered that game having lost six straight since a victory over South Doyle on Dec. 7. But they beat Monterey at camp in the summer, and there was no apparent reason — even without junior post Annalyne Woodward — why the Lady Highlanders couldn’t do it again when it actually counts in the books.
Except they didn’t. Monterey didn’t just win the game; it dominated the game. The Wildcats jumped out to a 7-0 lead and, except for a brief time when the Lady Highlanders cut it to 7-5 behind sparks provided by juniors Zoey Terry and Jalin Young, the game completely belonged to a Monterey team that, frankly, shouldn’t have won the game. The Wildcats out-shot and out-muscled the Lady Highlanders on both ends of the court.
At one point, as the second half began, a frustrated Wright set his starters and went to the end of his bench, playing kids that don’t typically see minutes in varsity games. He was trying to send a message to his players who do see minutes. If it worked, it wasn’t immediately obvious, as the varsity regulars re-entered the lineup with Scott down 14 and went on to lose by 19. But the hope for Wright, his staff and the Lady Highlander faithful, is that the message will click before play resumes against Campbell County on Jan. 4.
Unlike Scott’s boys team, the Lady Highlanders aren’t playing in a tournament between Christmas and New Year’s. That’s a good thing. Whether Wright chooses to practice his team hard for a week or give them some time off to rest and reflect, now is the time for the Lady Highlanders to get their minds right. This is a Scott High team that is firmly in program-building mode, and everyone knew that coming into the season. But it’s also a Scott team that has the ability to make some noise in the newly-formed District 4-3A. The Lady Highlanders opened district play by going on the road to beat Halls by 15. And, if we’re being completely honest, they should have beaten Anderson County at home on Dec. 10.
That game against the Lady Mavs slipped away, and was the start of the current skid. So now what? Well, the good news is that the strength of schedule eases considerably after Christmas. There are games against Campbell County and Cosby to resume play, but after that the Lady Highlanders will face Halls, Gibbs and Anderson County in a three-game stretch, then take on Clinton, Carter and Karns after a visit to Cosby on Jan. 25. The season ends with games against Wartburg, South Doyle and Karns.
Most of those games are winnable. And the Lady Highlanders are talented enough to win them. Right now, Scott just needs a little swagger and a little toughness. It found neither during the SFPT tournament, but there’s still a lot of time left, and a lot of basketball to be played.
7. How good is Pickett County?
This isn’t a question of local concern, necessarily, but it’s not inconceivable that the Lady Bobcats and the Lady Indians could meet down the road … though it would have to be in Murfreesboro.
Powell is really good. We know that. The Panthers have a lot of length, they’re deadly shooters, and that combination probably makes them the best team in their Class 4A district.
And Pickett County handed the Panthers their first loss of the season in the SFPT championship game on Wednesday.
It wasn’t a fluke, either. Pickett County led throughout, and withstood multiple surges by the Panthers to hold on for the win in what might very well have been the best game of the tournament.
It was quite a statement for a Class 1A team to beat a Class 4A team that might very well be good enough to make it at least to substate. Last year, Pickett County won 18 games but couldn’t get past Clarkrange or Clay County in the ultra-tough District 6-A, which is easily the most difficult district in the state. The Lady Bobcats will come out of the Christmas break with games against both the Buffaloes and the Bulldogs as they return to regular season play. Those are huge early January litmus tests that will answer the question of just how good this Pickett County team is. But for at least one week at OHS Gymnasium, Pickett County looked like a team good enough to get to Murfreesboro.
8. Where did the students go?
Students from both Oneida and Scott High showed up en force and created an amazing environment for Tuesday’s Indian-Highlander showdown in the SPFT semifinals (more on that in a moment).
But on Wednesday, things were far different.
To be fair, there was a student presence at Scott’s game against Powell Wednesday night. But there should have been; it was a championship game, after all. And the SHS student section was only a fraction of the size of Tuesday’s. To be equally fair, the Highlander students did get loud and were very much a part of Wednesday’s game. And they likely had an impact on the way both Powell and Scott played. Student sections boost their own teams and get into the heads of others, and it’s hard to determine which is more important.
For Oneida’s game against Pickett County, however, there were far fewer students in attendance. It was a big game, as the Indians faced a Bobcat squad that could very well compete for a state championship in March. And Oneida’s players put forth just as much effort and energy to beat the Bobcats on Wednesday as they did to beat Scott High on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Oneida’s student section was strong — loud and boisterous. Indians coach Jacob King took to Twitter after the game to thank his students, and to encourage them to recreate that same environment for all home games. Obviously, that’s a message that fell on deaf ears. Again, to be fair, Wednesday is a church night for a lot of people. That helps explain the absence of some. But the students who did show up, after never sitting down or shutting up during Tuesday’s game against Scott High, largely sat silently and on their phones as the Indians battled Pickett County deep into the fourth quarter.
Students, never under-estimate your importance at games. You can single-handedly change the outcome of a close game!
9. An incredible atmosphere
Holiday tournaments are notoriously under-attended. The games are often during the day, when parents are working, and most casual fans don’t show up since the games are considered less important than regular season games.
That’s why it was ingenious for McCreary County to schedule Oneida and Scott High to play in its Christmas tournament some 15 years ago, and for Anderson County to do the same thing more recently. Because even if fans aren’t going to show up for a “normal” tournament game, they’ll show up when these two play.
Why do we love seeing Oneida and Scott High play so much? Who knows. They aren’t rivals, not from a sports standpoint and from the truest sense of the word, because they don’t compete against one another. Yet, there’s no doubt that each side really likes to beat the other, and there’s also no doubt that most of us like seeing both teams on the court together … even those who root for one team or the other to win the game.
When McCreary County did the OHS-SHS game, it was the best-attended game of their entire tournament. The same for Anderson County.
So, finally, we’ve wisened up here at home. Two years ago, the SFPT tournament was set up in a way that would allow Scott and Oneida to play after each won first round games. It was a packed house and an incredible atmosphere. This time around, a matchup between the two teams seemed less likely; Woodberry-Forest, Scott’s first round opponent, was considered by many to be the team to beat in the tournament. But the Highlanders beat them, and set up Tuesday’s showdown with the Indians.
There wasn’t a seat to be had in OHS Gymnasium for Tuesday’s game. Nor were there many places to find a spot to stand. It was packed, to say the least. Both student sections showed up and showed out. And the game was a pretty good one. Trey Morrow scored 29 points to lead his team, Jacob Perry scored a career-high 17 and was deadly from 3-point range, and the two teams played a game that was a competitive one throughout.
The best thing about it? When the game ended, the players were embracing and joking around even before the final horn had sounded. They competed fiercely, but when the game was over, there was no animosity amongst them. Nor was there animosity amongst their coaches, who were complimentary of each other — “I’m for ‘em, as long as they’re not playing the orange and white,” Jacob King said. The fans packed out the place and there were no arguments, no fights.
The best part about it? No one expected there to be. When the two teams met at Anderson County a few years back, there was an extra police presence for the game … just in case. There wasn’t an extra police presence at Tuesday’s game; or, if there was, it wasn’t noticeable. The gym was literally so full that the fire marshal would have shut the thing down if he had been on hand, and yet everyone was well-behaved and well-mannered. There wasn’t even a lot of yelling at the referees, if you can imagine that.
As for the student sections, they cheered, they chanted, and they supported their teams. Oneida students called Trey Morrow a ball hog. Scott students chided Oneida players for a lack of fundamentals. They did what student sections do. And they did it with class. Sometimes, student sections push the limits of what is acceptable, and we say that it is “kids being kids.” But no limits were pushed at OHS Gymnasium on Tuesday.
Earlier in the day on Tuesday, two teams located more than six hours apart — one in Memphis, one in Knoxville — played at OHS Gymnasium, and there was so much trash-talking and taunting among the players that things nearly got out of hand. You could have cut the hatred with a knife.
And on Wednesday, after Clarkrange and York Institute — two teams that haven’t played each other in 40 years — wound up in the consolation game of their Christmas tournament, Clarkrange chose to take a forfeit rather than play the Dragons.
There are a lot of people who make a lot of excuses for why Scott High and Oneida can’t or shouldn’t play. But these two programs just keep proving everybody wrong every time they face off against one another. As King himself said after the game, it should happen twice a year in a home-and-home series. Why doesn’t it?