LEXINGTON — Scott County girls' basketball has settings of good, better and best as it competes against itself to be a district, region and state title contender.
While it's safe to say previous wins over Walton-Verona and Hendersonville Beech of Tennessee didn't move the meter much above the level of adequacy, coach Steve Helton reluctantly acknowledged that Tuesday's 79-41 win at Lexington Catholic was a step forward.
“I hate to come out of here with (almost) a 40-point win and complain. We'll get better,” Helton said. “We're 3-0 and haven't touched the surface on how good they are. I told then I know I'm griping, but the second I quit griping you better get worried, because that means we're moving on to something else. I'm complaining quite a bit, because I think they can be really good.”
Even though Catholic's 94-foot court posed a different challenge, SC's defense had its best night of the young season. The Lady Cards forced 18 turnovers and held the Lady Knights to only 35 field goal attempts. Nobody from Lex Cath scored more than six points.
And at the other end, rather than one or two players carrying the load, Scott County showed textbook balance. Maaliya Owens led five players in double digits with 17 points.
Morgan DeFoor added 15, Kenady Tompkins 14, Juliette Smith 13 and Braylee McMath 10.
“We just felt more together tonight, and I had a lot more confidence in myself,” Tompkins said. “It felt really good. As soon as we started the game and our defense was feeling good and shots were going in, I felt we were going to have a good game.”
Scott County pounded the ball inside to Tompkins for eight points during a 15-3 run to open the game. DeFoor and Owens each found the sophomore six-footer twice for easy layups in that stretch.
Malea Williams also had a put-back to start the game, helping the Lady Cards exploit their size advantage after a Sunday matinee in which successfully got physical for a while.
“Usually before a game I get really nervous,” Tompkins said. “Today I was just thinking about how there's no point to be nervous.”
That tension seemed team-wide last week as the Lady Cards struggled out of the gate against tough opponents. While Lexington Catholic (1-1) is vastly improved — as evidenced by the Lady Knights' decision to renew what was once the 11th Region's hottest rivalry for the first time since Jan. 3, 2014 — SC simply flaunted too many weapons.
DeFoor and Owens combined for 15 points to back up Tompkins' authoritative start, staking Scott County to a 31-12 lead.
Smith took over after beating the buzzer with a bucket in that period. She scored four consecutive Scott County buckets midway through the second, including two deep 3-pointers.
The senior point guard was a perfect 5-for-5 from the field on the night to go with four rebounds and three assists.
“She only had 13? It must have been 13 in a row,” Helton said. “Any time you get hot and shoot the ball the way she did for a period of time, defensively it makes you look a lot better.”
McMath added eight of her points off the bench in the second stanza, when Scott County increased its lead to 56-25.
Baskets by Williams, DeFoor and Owens pushed the game to the running clock threshold at the 6:14 mark of the third quarter.
“I was glad to see the kids have some fun,” Helton said. “They had smiles on their faces. We've been a little more tense. They're very intelligent kids. They know we overpowered a traditional team that's been a big rival.”
Scott County gave Lexington Catholic two of its toughest games back in 2006, when the Knights went 35-1 and won their third KHSAA state title in a six-year span.
The sneaker is on the other foot now. It's the Lady Cards who bear the weight of higher expectations, under the watchful eye of a coach who knows they'll have to make tangible progress even in games there's no danger of losing.
“It took us a while to adjust. We went from playing football on Sunday, and today we were playing flag. It took us out of the flow,” Helton said. “We adjusted at times. There were probably three minutes out of the game that we looked pretty good defensively, but 29 minutes we struggled.”
Trips to the free-throw line favored Lexington Catholic by a 21-6 margin. Helton figures some of that was due to having a hefty lead on the road and not getting many calls as a result.
He's enthused about a rare week off early in the season before a trip to Henry Clay next Tuesday, then consecutive home games against Boone County and Frederick Douglass.
“I'm excited about practice. When I was talking about my excitement, I got some eye rolls,” Helton said. “But I'm excited to see what we can do the next week to improve, because we're going to play a fired-up Henry Clay team on the road. We're going to have a good run here right before Christmas, a three-game span, and they're all going to be different.
“We're trying a lot of defenses to find out what we're good at. Right now we've got to find something, because we ain't good enough. Now, offensively, there's some things we can do. Our guard play is strong. (Tuesday) we missed a lot of easy shots.”
Scott County shot just under 50 percent (34-for-72) from the field and dominated the glass by a 45-23 disparity.
Williams grabbed a team-high seven boards. Tompkins took down six.
The players know those won't be the points of emphasis when they get to the gym later this week.
“It's going to be defense, defense, defense,” Tompkins said. “I think were stepping up a little bit, but we still need to work on it. We're still not where we need to be.”
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.