Success on the girls' basketball court came easily for Scott County High School the past two winters.
Then and now, the latter a more topsy-turvy time of adversity and uncertainly, coach Steve Helton has voiced his desire to see positive results when the Lady Cards get “squeezed.”
Tough spots don't get much tighter than Tuesday night in Lexington, and SC showed that there's no questioning its fighting spirit. Down by 15 points in the waning moments of the third quarter, the Lady Cards stormed all the way back to take the lead at Paul Laurence Dunbar, then prevailed 50-49 on senior Malea Williams' unthinkable 3-point play at the buzzer.
“We were down. I really couldn't tell you what we were down, other than we kept chipping away,” Helton said. “Games like this, if we'll do the right things with it, can really help us build.”
Down, but never out, even after Elise Ellison-Coons' drive led to a basket that broke a tie and seemed to secure victory for Dunbar.
In what would prove a coincidental twist, Williams was whistled for the foul on a collision under the basket before Ellison-Coons missed the resulting free throw to leave the door cracked open. It was the Lady Bulldogs' 10th miss in 21 attempts from the line.
“She tried to take a charge on the previous play, so she was trying to play both ends,” Helton said of Williams. “They didn't shoot free throws particularly well, so it gave us a chance.”
It left time for three shots at the frantic finish. Emma Price, who sank several key shots in the second shots in the second half, was long with the first.
Tyra Young scrapped for the rebound but couldn't get her second shot to fall. Williams, the tallest player on the court at 6-foot-3, leaped above the fray to collect the loose ball, fight off contact from Dunbar and sink a short leaner as both the whistle and horn sounded.
Officials met briefly before confirming both the basket and the follow-up free throw for Williams with no time on the clock. She missed three tries earlier in the night, but her bid for the win swished through the net to stave off overtime and set off a wild Lady Cardinal celebration near center court.
“It was one of those opportunities where we got a good shot. The strength of our team right now is rebounding, and lo and behold, we got a couple shots right there at the buzzer.,” Helton said. “(Williams' college) career ahead, she's going to have an opportunity to hit some big shots, but that's probably one of the bigger shots she's hit in her Scott County career.”
The major Division I prospect's heroics provided a rare finish to the unlikeliest of victories for Scott County (10-5), which was without senior point guard Morgan DeFoor due to illness.
Williams and fellow six-footer Kenady Tompkins took turns as the unusual occupants of her position during the second-half comeback. Tompkins tallied 18 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, while Williams wound up with 13 points and 16 boards.
“We got the news this morning about 8 o'clock that Morgan wasn't going to be able to go,” Helton said. “Malea asked me about 10 what we were gonna do for a game plan. I told her just what any good coach would have told her at that moment, 'I don't have a clue.' So that's where we were.
“It adjusted per possession. Second half our best option was KT and Malea taking turns running point. Dunbar played a zone. They sat in that zone. It was wide. (For us) it was just like putting a square peg in a circle and trying to pound it and pound it.”
Tompkins' baseline jumper did more than give Scott County life at the end of the third quarter. It launched a 16-0 run in response to a 17-3 push from Dunbar.
Emma Price, who started in DeFoor's place, and Maleiyah Moore, an eighth-grader, each drained a 3-pointer during a run of more than six minutes in which SC held Dunbar scoreless.
A second-chance basket by Tompkins gave the Lady Cards a lead with 1:41 left. Price's floater later pulled it even at 47.
“Brianna Penney, Maleiyah Moore, Emma Price came in and played huge minutes,” Helton said. “Defensively I was just so proud. You get down like that on the road, you don't have your starting guard who's averaging 20 a game, there's a lot of ways you can just say, 'We'll play 'em again sometime.' But we never discussed it. We missed Morgan, but it gave a lot of kids a chance to play, and play big.”
Ellison-Coons and Tanaya Cecil led Dunbar (9-6) with 16 and 12 points, respectively. Both teams entered the showdown without a loss to another 11th Region opponent.
Dunbar warded off a similar SC rally in the second quarter to lead 27-26 at the half before its third-period push.
Scott County persisted and won for the seventh time in its past nine games, a stretch that has seen improvement but left the coach craving more in terms of a team environment.
“Granted it was for that short amount of time, but every kid, every parent we had there, was celebrating on that one free throw. I want that to continue on, because this is a program. This ain't a team that we throw together and we do this for a hobby. This is our careers,” Helton said. “We need our program to unite. We need our parents and our kids, on and off the court, to unite, to give us a chance to see what we could do. Because (Tuesday) we flat out had to play with everything that we had, and everybody who came in did something.”
The coach added that he would “have to go back a ways” to recall a more ecstatic locker room after a regular season game.
“That meant the world to me, because they were genuinely happy for each other,” Helton said. “It's a moment I want us to build on, because those are good times. You won't remember every game, but Malea Williams will remember that game, that free throw that she hit.”
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.