By Trey Williams
Keisha Gregory came home for Christmas and her former Science Hill basketball teammate, Tianna Tarter, gave her a lump of coal.
Gregory’s first collegiate start for Austin Peay had a familiar finish Monday in Brooks Gym, but now Tarter was engineering the enemy’s endgame.
Tarter, East Tennessee State’s athletic sophomore point guard, scored 13 of her 22 points in the final 7:25 and assisted sharpshooting southpaw Shamauria Bridges’ game-winning 3-pointer with 29 seconds left to wrap up the teams’ pre-Christmas schedules with an entertaining treat that had more twists than holiday peppermint.
Gregory’s mother, Karen Kemp, coached the Bucs for 19 seasons beginning in 1994. Gregory attended ETSU practices while still wearing diapers and helped develop her game growing up around the likes of two-time Atlantic Sun player of the year Siarre Evans, a key cog on three straight NCAA Tournament teams.
The first of those was in 2008, when Gregory rode on an airplane for the first time to see the Lady Bucs lose to 13th-ranked Oklahoma State in Des Moines, Iowa. The last one was a hard-fought 94-82 loss to third-seeded Xavier that Gregory still gets excited discussing.
In fact, Kemp recruited Bridges to ETSU prior to being let go. But Monday Kemp was wearing an Austin Peay shirt in the gym that used to house her office.
Other storylines included adversity. Gregory was making her first start because she had a rod inserted in her shin during a September surgery. She played 24 minutes while debuting in a reserve role last week.
And Tarter was playing her fourth game since sitting out eight due to a concussion sustained in the season opener against UNC-Asheville.
It was strange seeing different uniforms on Gregory and Tarter, who helped Science Hill to back-to-back state runner-ups in 2012 and ’13 and won AAU championships together with the Tennessee Lady Trotters, including a state title in May of 2010 despite Tarter’s father Lanny dying from a heart attack during the trip at the age of 37. Tarter led the Trotters to the title after her dad’s death.
“Me and my mom were in the room next to hers,” Gregory said while rekindling amazement about Tarter’s competitive fire 5 1/2 years later. “I just think that she had it in her head that she was gonna play for him, and she was always gonna play for him. She was obviously sad but she just kept playing and she knew that she was gonna win this for him and she wasn’t gonna let everyone down. And that’s what she did.”
Science Hill went 137-9 with Tarter and was ranked nationally much of her career. She’s the reigning Southern Conference player of the week after a 26-point, 11-rebound performance in a win against Davidson. And Monday’s win was the fourth straight since Tarter’s return to the Bucs (7-6), who were 2-6 without her.
“I can’t teach what Tianna Tarter does,” third-year ETSU coach Brittney Ezell said. “If I could teach that don’t you think I’d teach that to all of ‘em, not just one? She makes some phenomenal plays because she’s a gifted kid. …
“What Tianna is is the most competitive person in the gym. … And that kid wills us to win a lot of times when maybe we shouldn’t have, and did it from the moment she stepped on campus.”
Tarter’s desire to win was why she volunteered to guard Gregory, a scene made even odder by Science Hill’s current players looking on from the bleachers.
“They asked me in the locker room who I wanted to guard because Keisha was starting,” Tarter said. “So I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just guard her. Why not?’”
Tarter didn’t want Gregory getting untracked with any early treys.
“When we found out the starting lineup had changed – they came in and wrote on the board Gregory was starting and Tarter raised her hand and she goes, ‘I got it,’” Ezell said. “So we just left her alone. I said, ‘You don’t want to guard (point guard Tiasha) Gray?’ She goes, ‘No, I’m gonna get Gregory.’”
Gregory recalled guarding Tarter when Gregory was the backup point guard during her freshman season in high school.
“She was the best player on the team,” Gregory said. “It was nerve-racking.”
Gregory’s upside is apparent as a college freshman. She had two assists and a driving bank in the first quarter, and her 3-pointer gave Austin Peay a 41-37 lead with 7:22 left in the third period.
“She’s a coach’s daughter; she has a high basketball IQ,” Governors coach David Midlick said. “She can shoot the basketball. She’s a player that makes other players on the court better.”
Midlick also praised Kemp, as well as Gregory’s grandmother, Kate Kemp, who prepared a holiday feast for the Peay players and coaches. Midlick said it deserved more than two thumbs up.
“I give it 10 fingers up,” he said. “It was really good – ham, turkey, dressing and all the stuff.”
Kemp was happy to connect with players again. “There were no leftovers,” she said with a smile.
Kemp still nourishes Tarter, too.
“She usually checks up on me and makes sure I’m doing okay and stuff, and I appreciate that a lot,” Tarter said. “Her and a lot of other people have helped me out since I lost my father.”
Kemp would’ve gladly coached Tarter in college, but she didn’t want to coach Gregory. Mother and daughter agreed that Kemp would’ve been too hard on Gregory out of concern for showing favoritism.
Instead, Kemp watched her daughter’s first college start through the eyes of a doting mother. It trumped any awkwardness the setting staged.
“You know, I can’t say it’s really strange, because I’m just a proud mama,” Kemp said. “I’m glad she has this opportunity to play at the Division I level because that was always her goal. … She was out those three months and to come back and start after only being back two games – that really makes me feel good.”
And, Kemp says, having her daughter home for six days is a better gift than any victory. But it would’ve been nice if that naughty Tarter had let them enjoy both.