Scott County girls' basketball coach Steve Helton has built an almost-annual holiday tradition in his 20 seasons at the helm, He takes the Lady Cards on an out-of-state bus trip to play back-to-back-to-back games.
Last year, Helton blacked out those dates both before and after Christmas. He likes the unfamiliar, uber-athletic level of competition, and he loves the chance to build camaraderie and a family atmosphere for what's to come in January, February and March.
It's a more festive atmosphere when SC wins, of course. And after a hiccup in the form of a loss to a team from host South Carolina on opening night of the Blue Star High School Invitational, Scott County rebounded with victories over opponents from Georgia and North Carolina to win the consolation bracket.
“Above all, our hope is the kids had a good experience,” Helton said. “The kids will not remember all the games or scores, but our hope for our team, our parents and our travel group is that they remember the experiences. Maybe those future conversations will begin with, 'Remember when?'”
Saturday's last-minute, 70-68 triumph over Spalding of Griffin, Georgia, and Monday's 70-60 verdict against Butler of Matthews, North Carolina, improved Scott County's record against non-Kentucky opponents to 21-18 over the past 10 years.
The Lady Cards won tournament titles in Tennessee and Florida last season.
“We enjoy traveling during the holidays for the kids,” Helton said. “It's an opportunity for us to play against strong competition, in new venues, as well as opportunity to be seen by colleges or travel teams that may not have the opportunity to see some of the kids around our great state.”
As was the case in last winter, when SC was a perfect 7-0 against outsiders, those new spectators got an eyeful of Morgan DeFoor at the top of her game.
DeFoor hit the tying and go-ahead free throws with 10 seconds remaining to cap her career-high 32 points against Spalding. DeFoor, who has hit or exceeded 30 points in three of SC's past five games, also finished with seven steals, five assists and five rebounds.
“Morgan wanted the ball and wanted to take the shot for the chance to win,” SC coach Steve Helton said. “She got fouled and stepped up big.”
Malea Williams, playing on the wing as Scott County (7-4) went with a starting lineup that featured four players 5-foot-10 or taller, had a monster game as well with 20 points with 18 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots for the Lady Cards.
Tyra Young also hit one of two free throws with 2.6 ticks left to help SC seal the victory in a consolation bracket game.
“It wasn't a masterpiece, but it was a good win against a very good team,” Helton said. “We are searching for an identity 11 games into our dress rehearsal regular season. Tonight we showed some toughness down the stretch. We got out-athleted again, but we found a way.”
In Monday’s consolation final, DeFoor scored 17 of her 23 points in the second quarter, including a 3-pointer to beat the first-half buzzer.
Williams (20 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks) and Kenady Tompkins (10 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, three steals) each chalked up a double-double.
Kennon Owens and Trenyce Kenney, the latter seeing her first stints in the SC starting lineup Saturday and Monday, each grabbed four rebounds.
SC expanded its 13-7 lead at the end of a sluggish first quarter — possibly attributable to the 10 o'clock morning tip — to 36-23 at the half on the strength of DeFoor's explosion.
“It's always good to win the last game while on a trip, especially with a long ride home,” Helton said. “We played really well in spurts. We're trying to get in some flow as we find out who we are and who we could become.”
The Lady Cards have won five of six since a three-game losing streak in the second week of the season, one that included close losses to Southwestern of Pulaski County and East Central of St. Leon, Indiana.
“We are pleased to get a couple good wins,” Helton said. “Winning cures a lot.”
An unstoppable freshman spoiled Scott County's chances of winning the tournament outright.
Milaysia Fulwiley, a 5-foot-5 point guard, drained six 3-pointers and piled up 33 points for Keenan of Columbia, South Carolina, which cruised to a 77-55 victory in Friday's quarterfinals.
“Defensively we struggled to guard what may be one of the best freshmen I've ever seen," Helton said. "She shot the ball well, which just broke our back. Not only could she score, she made others better, because she required so much attention."
Tamara Davis added 14 points and Brooklyn Woods nine for the Lady Raiders, who lost in South Carolina's Class 3A state championship game last winter.
SC, which entered the game on their second three-game winning streak of the season, fell into a 25-15 hole in the first quarter and saw the gap increase to 15 points early in the second.
A modest rally trimmed that deficit to 41-33 at halftime, but Fulwiley's fourth, fifth and sixth 3-pointers of the night fueled an 18-11 Raider run in the third period.
"We played poorly on both sides of the ball," Helton said. "Offensively we struggled with any flow. Shots weren't falling, so we went into stand and watch mode (on defense). We couldn't do anything right, and everything they touched turned to gold."
DeFoor led Scott County with 14 points, while Wiliams added 10.
Both seniors entered the game scoring 18 per game. SC was held more than 20 points below its team average, which is No. 2 in Kentucky.
Tyra Young's six points and Brianna Penney's five off the bench were a bright spot for SC.
Scott County jumps back into the fire Saturday night when it takes on reigning KHSAA champion Ryle in the 8 p.m. main event of an all-day showcase at Franklin County,
From there, the Lady Cards face 11th Region road games at Madison Central and Paul Laurence Dunbar before their next home game Jan. 16 against Covington Scott.
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at email@example.com.