Fans will recognize some elements of the Scott County High School girls’ basketball team this season, particularly the star players who have been on NCAA Division I recruiters’ radar since their freshman year.
What might take some time and careful study is getting to know everyone else, and consequently, getting used to the run-and-gun, press-and-push Lady Cards employing a more measured style.
Don’t feel too badly if the changes make you blink or squint a little bit. None of this is second nature to coach Steve Helton, either.
“As a coach, you try to put kids in position for success. If we’re doing something we’re not going to have success at, we have to adapt,” Helton said. “We’re going to keep our foundation, but we’re going to put a few wrinkles in and take a few wrinkles out until we’re ready.”
Gone from a program that won back-to-back 11th Region championships and went 65-5 the past two years are Maaliya Owens, one of four 2,000-point scorers in Lady Cards’ history, and Juliette Smith, who piled up well over 1,000 in her own right while serving as the consummate playmaker.
Three of the state’s best leave SC with a mighty nucleus.
Morgan DeFoor, who recently signed with Morehead State University and is on pace to join that 2,000-point club by mid-season, takes over at point guard.
Malea Williams, a 6-foot-4 senior who has offers on the table from more than a dozen major colleges, can play any position on the floor.
And junior Kenady Tompkins, a 6-0 returning starter, brings nightly double-double potential and toughness in the paint.
So what’s the worry? An lack of varsity experience from the remaining two starters — still undecided as the Lady Cards get ready to host Lexington Catholic, Madison Southern and Frederick Douglass this week — and all the way down the bench.
“We’re still struggling, but we’re starting to glue the pieces together,” Williams said. “I think by the time our season starts, we’ll be ready.”
Scott County led the state in scoring last season at a clip of 82 points per game. It was a reflection of the Lady Cards’ talent level, but also an all-out, 84-to-94-foot style that was Helton’s preference and his players’ forte.
While there may be flashes of that high-octane approach, SC is unlikely is unlikely to employ it against everyone, and perhaps not for 32 minutes against anyone … yet.
“It’s more teaching this year. Last year we’d all been here. We all knew what to do. It was just fast-paced. It’s more kind of slow, teaching, and letting them get into it,” DeFoor said. “I think we’re going to slow down a little bit this year. I mean, if we can do the plays, if we can score, it should be good.”
The cupboard isn’t bare after SC’s Big Three get fed, by any means.
Kaylie Wise was one of the first players off the bench last season. Two junior transfers, Kennon Owens (Montgomery County) and Trenyce Kenney (Harrison County), were starters at those schools a year ago.
Emma Price and Kylie Bartholomew both saw time during the Lady Cards run to the 2018-19 KHSAA Sweet 16 quarterfinals.
Demands on all those players are dramatically different now.
“You have players who are going to be key components this year who played last year when it was a 40-point game,” Helton said. “How many four-quarter games did our starters play last year? Very few. That was when those kids played, and there was no pressure. The game was out of reach for the most part. Now those players are saying we’ve got to step up and make shots, because if not, Morgan, Malea and K.T. are going to have a long night. They need help.”
Practice is a crucial point of emphasis in Helton’s system, and the coach said he’s spent more of that time explaining basic expectations than at any other time in his 20-year tenure.
Gains have been slow and incremental, and it has admittedly made the players who have been through the battles a bit antsy.
“Right now we’re just not playing as a team. Right now they’re competing for playing time and they’re arguing over who’s better instead of just sticking together and playing,” Williams said of her younger teammates. “So all the older ones, me, Morgan, K.T,, Kaylie, we’re just trying to get them to understand we play as a team. So we play like a team, and we practice just like we’re playing.”
Helton shares the frustration but knows it is essential to get the new faces on the same page in order to fulfill the team’s star-driven potential.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to practice. We have such a gap between experience and no experience,” he said. “It’s going to take us a little longer. I can’t even look at you and say, ‘Offense is ahead of defense.’ Right now, offensively or defensively, we’re just not clicking. We’re still looking for a starting five. We may have three different lineups (this) week. I hope we figure it out by then.”
Another semi-new look, borne of necessity, is DeFoor’s return to point guard.
DeFoor, remarkably entering her seventh season as a high school varsity player, filled the role as a freshman when Smith sat out the season with a knee injury. Helton would rather have DeFoor roaming the 3-point semicircle as a wing, where she has shown limitless range and zero fear since coming on the scene as a sixth-grader.
“That’s not ideal, but it’s kind of process of elimination right now,” Helton said. “She likes it better. Morehead recruited her to be a point guard. I feel good with the ball in her hands. My philosophy, though, is you can take a point guard out easier than you can take a wing out. A lot of teams are going to run two at her and make one of the other wings step up.”
Helton said SC might borrow stylistically from two storied NBA teams of the 1990s: The Chicago Bulls’ triangle offense led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, or the pick and roll popularized by Karl Malone and John Stockton of the Utah Jazz.
“As good as K.T, and Malea are, they’ve got to have help getting the ball. They’ve got to have somebody who can create,” Helton said. “We’re going to have to adjust and do some things a little different until it clicks. We’re still going to want to run. However, when you run you’ve got to be able to create your own shot, and right now Morgan is the guard that can create her own shot at any time, The other guards, they need a pick, and they need that experience.”
DeFoor, who is just under 1,700 points for her career, believes Scott County will be able to solve those issues on the fly.
“Since now I’m the point guard, I’ll be a little bit more of a leader, like Juliette was last year,” DeFoor said. “The scoring kind of went through me and Maaliya last year, so that should be somewhat the same, but Malea should be a big factor, too.”
Despite her dominant size at the high school level, the wiry Williams is likely to be a jump-shooting wing when she gets to college.
Helton is torn between taking advantage of that skill set and preparing Williams for the next level while also needing her under the basket for rebounds and blocked shots.
“It’s more like we’re relearning everything,.” Williams said. “We’re teaching the younger ones to play and step up and go hard in practice. We’re just picking up where we left off, but we’re working to get there.
“It’s crazy,” she added about the reality of this being her senior season. “I never really thought that it would be me. I looked up the older kids when I first came in, and now it’s the younger kids looking up to me.”
Scott County will play eight of its first nine games at home before heading to Rock Hill, South Carolina, for a Christmas tournament. Helton hopes the comfortable confines will help a team that is mostly still getting accustomed to the varsity swing of things.
“I’m still working on little things, like a lot of these kids don’t even know how to travel,” Helton said.
“The level that we need to play at, we’re just not there yet. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We’re trying to tweak some things to hopefully alleviate some glaring deficiencies that we’re having.”
Scott County hasn’t lost a 42nd District game in three full seasons and will be heavily favored to continue that roll this winter.
In the region, Franklin County and Paul Laurence Dunbar are among the teams that have stepped up their game. And of course there’s no small matter of a home-and-home series against new neighbor Great Crossing.
DeFoor’s outlook is no different than it’s been throughout her high school years.
“I’m excited. I don’t expect any different. I expect to win, to go far, to do all that stuff,” she said. “I still expect to play the Scott County basketball that we’ve been playing.
“I think we’re going to have to be patient in the beginning, but I think once we get all the things together and get the young players going, we’ll be good.”
SCHS girls’ basketball
Steve Helton (varsity, 20th year)
Tara Helton (JV, 22nd year)
unless otherwise noted)
3 Lexington Catholic7:30 PM
4 Madison Southern7:30 PM
6 Douglass7:30 PM
10 at DuPont Manual6:00 PM13 Southwestern7:30 PM
14 East Central (Ind.)4:00 PM
16 Holmes 7:30 PM
18 Henry Clay 7:30 PM
20 Tates Creek 7:30 PM
26 at So. Car. tourneyTBA
4 vs. Ryle at Franklin8:00 PM8 at Madison Central7:30 PM14 at P.L. Dunbar7:45 PM
16 Scott High8:00 PM21 at Bryan Station7:30 PM
23 Lincoln County5:30 PM
24 Great Crossing5:30 PM
25 Simon Kenton12:00 PM
28 at Henry Clay7:30 PM
29 at Douglass7:30 PM
4 at Sayre6:00 PM
6 Bryan Station7:30 PM
7 Russell County7:30 PM
8 at South Laurel2:30 PM
12 at Walton-Verona7:30 PM
14 at Great Crossing6:00 PM
15 at Campbell Co.2:30 PM
20 North Laurel7:30 PM
District: 42. Region: 11.
Outlook: Scott County is the two-time defending regional champion and has two Miss Basketball contenders in DeFoor and Williams.
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at email@example.com.