By Trey Williams
Humble pie was the breakfast of champions in Middle Eight Conference basketball this season.
Early season losses helped propel the Liberty Bell Middle School boys and girls teams to regular-season league titles.
The Lady Patriots (21-1) haven’t been challenged since losing a hotly contested game with Holston in the championship of Daniel Boone’s holiday tournament, and the Patriots (20-2) won 19 straight to secure a league title after losing their season opener against Sevier in Kingsport.
“We didn’t come ready to play,” said boys coach Cody Connell, a former multi-sport starter at Daniel Boone who’s in his third year coaching the eighth grade after spending a year as the middle school junior-varsity head coach.
“I think they probably only lost two ballgames last year and I guess they thought they were going to just run through the league. … After that loss those guys have worked their tail off and we went on an 18-game winning streak.”
The Patriots are led by 6-foot-2 post Jake Matherne and a deep backcourt. Matherne can rebound, make mid-range shots and is comfortable bringing the ball up the court after grabbing a rebound.
Matherne played less than 10 minutes in both of the Pats’ losses due to foul trouble. (Liberty Bell’s other loss was to Robinson in Kingsport in the regular-season finale after the Patriots had clinched the conference title.)
“He may not lead us in scoring every ballgame, but … we’ve got a go-to guy when we need him,” Connell said. “We don’t get very many rebounds without him on the floor.”
The backcourt includes point guards Griffin Ballard and B.J. Edwards and combo guards Marquis Griffin and Jordan Mcloyd.
Edwards, a seventh-grader whose father Brian was a 1,000-yard rusher at East Tennessee State, might have the most upside of any guard since Appalachian State commitment Patrick Good.
“He’s good enough to start as a seventh grader,” Connell said. “You can tell he’s been playing a long time. … He’s very smart and he doesn’t get scared at crunch time.”
Edwards is quick, a good ball-handler and sees the floor well. His pass to get Hunter Phillips a transition lay-up at the end of the half in the tourney win against Church Hill pleased the Pats’ crowd. He also swished a 3-pointer via a kick-out from Matherne almost immediately after entering the game for Ballard.
“B.J. is a very special player,” Connell said.
Ballard is a heady gym rat.
“Griffin will be a very good coach one day,” Connell said.
The left-handed Griffin displayed deep shooting range in a first-round league tournament win against Church Hill. McLoyd made a 3-pointer from the left wing that Edwards assisted shortly after entering the game against Church Hill.
The Patriots’ key components include Phillips, Dylan Wagner and Mitchell Addington.
Another with huge upside is 6-foot-3 seventh-grade post Isaiah “Z” Mirhabibi. He made a crowd-pleasing three-point play against Church Hill after using a power dribble to start a spin move across the lane for a bank shot.
Landon Slemp and Conner Hyatt are in the rotation. Other contributors include Ethan Jones, Clay McKenzie, Tomy Oudom and Ben Payne.
“Every player on our team can score,” Connell said.
The Lady Patriots have a variety of weapons too, though small forward Alasia Smith is capable of stealing the show.
Her mother, Leah Jackson Smith, had a Hall of Fame career at Science Hill and Carson-Newman, where Alasia’s father, Larry, played football. Her brother and sister were also key components in conference championships at Science Hill. Alasia appears capable of enhancing the family legacy.
“When she takes over a game I might as well go sit down,” said coach Melissa Ervin, who scored more than 1,100 points in two years at King after playing two years at Western Carolina and teaming with Katie O’Dell to get Mickey Forrester’s Sullivan East Lady Patriots to a state tournament. “They don’t need me. I just nod and grin, like, ‘Just do what you do. I’ll be right here.’ …
“Alasia’s really fast, and she’s even faster going side to side. She’s like Spiderman; she’s everywhere. … I know for a fact that when we played she got every single rebound in a three-minute span at Greeneville – their shots, our shots. It was just crazy.”
Smith is joined in the frontcourt by 6-foot-1 Amariana Johnson. She’s only played basketball two years, but Ervin says working with her aunt, Science Hill Hall of Famer Tiffany Collins, each of the past two summers has made up for lost time.
“Once she gets the hang of it it’s over for any other post player in this area,” Ervin said. “There have been games where she’s had ten blocks.”
The starting point guard is Aliyana Hill, and the talented backcourt includes shooting guard Yabre Garcia and Jeila Greenlee, a promising seventh grader.
“Greenlee is probably the best ball-handler on the team,” Ervin said.
The other seventh grader Ervin’s excited to talk about is fast athletic forward Avery Dotson, who’s expected to start in the postseason’s remainder.
Shooting guard Shayna Price has started too, although she’s been slowed by an ankle injury. Another regular that can shoot from the perimeter is wing Erin Egerbrecht, who was absent due to ballet during Liberty Bell’s lone loss.
Jia Scott is also in the rotation. Liberty Bell gets contributions from hard-nosed Paige Carlsen, Lily Cullop, Maggie Vanderlind, Claire Thomas and Peja Shay, whose father Jason is an assistant at East Tennessee State.
Liberty Bell hasn’t looked back since losing to Holston. Ervin says Holston is a good team coached well by former Sullivan Central player Kristi Moody Walling, but the Lady Pats were also missing Price.
“Honestly, I think that loss was the best thing that ever happened to us,” Ervin said. “That was the first game that group had lost in over a year. They didn’t like that at all and we’ve been on a tear ever since. We haven’t had a game closer than 20 (points).”
The seventh and eighth graders have drawn loose comparisons to the classes that included Tianna Tarter, Shy Copney, Keisha Gregory, Gabby Lyon and Enjelica Reid. Assistant coach Anthony McInturff, a multi-sport standout at Science Hill in the late ‘70s before signing to play football for Monte Kiffin at North Carolina State, said there might not be a player the caliber of Copney or Tarter in terms of creating shots, but depth makes this crop comparable.
“They’re looking forward to playing at Science Hill,” Ervin said. “They grew up watching those teams dominate and they want to do that.”