The inaugural South Fork Physical Therapy Holiday Classic proved to be quite a success for Oneida High School.

The Indians were able to use the three-day event as a fundraiser for their basketball program, plus got to play three games at home rather than traveling for the holidays. Scott High was able to play three games close to home, as well, and fans of both teams who would’ve been unable to make the trip to destinations such as Knoxville or Maryville for holiday tournament games were able to catch all the games. A number of folks from Scott High stayed for Oneida games to cheer on the Indians, and vice-versa.

Oneida protected its home floor well. The Indians and Lady Indians won all six of their games during the classic. Scott High also did well. After a lackluster effort against Whitley County on Day 1, the Highlanders rebounded for back-to-back wins against Lenoir City and Lynn Camp. 

There were several individual standout performances over the course of the three days. Lady Highlander senior point guard Grace Sexton had 22 points in her team’s game against Williamsburg, as she continues to edge closer to 1,000 career points. Lady Indian junior Kendyl West had a career-high 25 points in her team’s win over Whitley County on Saturday. Scott High freshman Trey Morrow had a career-high 35 points — along with 12 rebounds — in the Highlanders’ impressive win over Lenoir City on Friday. And Oneida senior Luke Carson had a career-high 13 in the Indians’ sterling win over Whitley County on Saturday.

What can be: Both Scott High and Oneida showed flashes of what they’re capable of during the three-day holiday classic. The Highlanders’ big moment came in a 78-61 win over Lenoir City on Friday, while the Indians’ came in a 69-35 win over Whitley County on Saturday.

Lenoir City isn’t a great basketball team, but it’s a Class AAA team, and the Panthers won two of three games at Oneida, allowing the Highlanders to spoil their chances of three in a row at the holiday classic. 

Scott High, which was attempting to rebound from a lopsided loss to Whitley County the previous afternoon, dominated Friday’s game from start to finish. Freshman Trey Morrow had a career-high 35 points and was virtually unstoppable, getting better as the game progressed. But he wasn’t the only youngster who excelled. Fellow freshman Noah Buttram had 10 first quarter points, including a couple of 3-point shots. In fact, of the Highlanders’ 32 first half points, a whopping 28 were scored by freshmen. 

The play of Scott High’s freshmen has been a major storyline this season. The Highlanders are starting two freshmen with regularity, and even started three on the final day of play at Oneida on Saturday, which is virtually unheard of for a Class AA team. 

This season has been a tale of two teams for the Highlanders so far. They dominated a good Oakdale team early on, leading the Eagles 52-16 at halftime. Oakdale is a Class A team, but is sitting atop the District 3-A standings, and has wins over the likes of Anderson County and Harriman. The Highlanders also scored a huge district win over Austin-East, winning in dramatic fashion, and were up by as much as 16 at one point against Alcoa.

The flip side includes a double-digit loss at Wartburg, a disappointing district loss at home against Kingston, a 30-point loss to Whitley County just 24 hours before the big win over Lenoir City, and a second half collapse against the Tornadoes, who eventually won by 19 in Huntsville.

In fact, the Highlanders enter the second half of the regular season with just a 1-3 record in district play, and will likely have to find a way to beat Kingston if they’re to advance beyond the district tournament. 

Still, Scott has shown that it can play with anybody. After falling behind by 20-plus against top-ranked Fulton, the Highlanders played the Falcons evenly. It would be easy to argue that Fulton took its foot off the gas, but Scott came back against Alcoa and showed just how explosive it can be, jumping to a 9-0 lead in the first 45 seconds of the game.

When Scott finds its energy, and is able to crank up its intensity, the Highlanders are as fun to watch as any team in East Tennessee — and can hang with virtually anybody. 

Oneida, meanwhile, continues to slowly develop into what it’s capable of. The Indians will enter the second half of the season with an 8-7 record overall, and a 3-2 record in district play. While the Indians have come up short in their two district tests of consequence so far — at Oakdale and at home against Harriman — they’re still a work in progress.

As they closed out Christmas play on their home floor Saturday, the Indians showed just what they’re capable of, routing Whitley County by a 69-35 final. Whitley County had beaten Oneida by 11 in Williamsburg a few weeks earlier, and had won two in a row at Oneida, including a 30-point win over Scott High on Thursday. 

But Oneida took charge early and never let up against the Colonels. Perhaps most impressively, the Indians did it with their defense. Oneida’s achilles heel this season has been defense. Not that it’s been terrible, but the Indians haven’t been able to get stops when it matters, which hasn’t allowed them to put together momentum-seizing runs that break the will of their opponents. Perhaps just as importantly, the lack of stops hasn’t allowed Oneida to get into transition and utilize its biggest weapons — speed and athleticism. 

As the second half of the season begins, the Indians are still in something of a shooting slump, at least compared to what they showed during the summer that they’re capable of, and they remain very much a team that can make a run to the District 3-A championship at Roane State in a few weeks.

What can be, on the girls’ side: Scott High’s Lady Highlanders were 0-for-3 at Oneida last week, but that record doesn’t tell the full story. 

The Lady Highlanders had an opportunity to end the three-day event with a win over Lenoir City on Saturday, but were unable to come up with a bucket in the final three minutes of the game. They also had their chances to beat Whitley County, and could just as easily have exited the Christmas tournament with a 2-1 record. 

Close-but-not-quite has been the theme of Scott High’s season so far. After a 5-4 start to the season, which saw the Lady Highlanders win four of five games in one stretch, they’ve lost seven of their last eight and are 6-11 as they get set for the second half of the season. 

Scott picked up a big district win over Austin-East early on, and defeating the Roadrunners will be enough to get the Lady Highlanders back to the Region 2-AA quarterfinals if they can repeat that feat in the district tournament next month. But they’re close to so much more. Instead of being 1-3 in the district as January begins, the Lady Highlanders could just as easily be 3-1. They let two wins get away from them — one against Fulton and one against Austin-East — and have shown so far that they can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the district except Kingston, which appears to be on its way to another district championship.

Against Alcoa, the Lady Highlanders started strong, then roared back from eight points down in the final two minutes of the game to force a tie, only to lose on a last-second putback by the Roadrunners. Rebounding had frustrated Scott coach Jackson Sharp throughout that game, but that finish was a nutshell version of just how close the Lady Highlanders are to being a completely different team than their record indicates.

Oneida, meanwhile, appears to be settling into a groove of its own, going 3-for-3 on its home court over the Christmas break. The Lady Indians have now won eight in a row after a 3-4 start to the season, and will have an opportunity to make it nine in a row with Rockwood visiting on Friday, before next week’s huge district showdown with Wartburg at OHS Gymnasium (Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.). 

Ask other coaches in the district who the team is to beat in District 3-A this season, and they’ll say Oneida. But Sunbright and Wartburg will clearly have plenty to say about that; the Lady Indians haven’t played either of those teams yet. After hosting Wartburg on Tuesday, Oneida will go to Sunbright on January 10. 

If the Lady Indians have an issue, it’s been a lack of consistency on the offensive end. Just twice in their eight-game winning streak have they scored more than 60 points (62 at Okadale, 71 against Harriman). But their defense has proven exceptional. In fact, Oneida’s opponents have failed to break 40 points in six of the last eight games, and have scored fewer than 30 points in three of those games. 

It’s clear after one half of the season that District 3-A will once again come down to four teams: Oneida, Sunbright, Wartburg and Midway. With Midway beating Wartburg to close out the pre-Christmas portion of the regular season, there are only two unbeatens remaining : the Lady Indians, and Rusty Yaden’s Lady Tigers. But all four teams are likely to still be standing for what should be an exciting finish at Roane State Community College in Harriman next month.

From the Pressbox is a weekly sports column by Independent Herald Editor Ben Garrett. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.