During a timeout early in Thursday’s state quarterfinal game against Loretto, Oneida Lady Indians head coach Marv West asked his team if they belonged.
Did they belong in Murfreesboro, at the Murphy Center? Did they belong on high school basketball’s biggest stage?
Only eight of Tennessee’s 127 teams in Class A basketball had made it to the campus of Middle Tennessee State University for the state championships. Just getting there is an accomplishment. But West, who has overseen several of Oneida’s 17 state tournament appearances, went into last week’s tournament wanting his team to understand that there’s more to it than just getting there.
When West posed the question to his team, the Lady Indians had fallen behind Loretto 14-2. They were hitting just eight percent of their shots and were struggling to get good looks at the basket against the Mustangs’ long-armed defense. It looked like they might be on the verge of a rout.
By the end of the day, and by the end of the weekend, the answer was clear: Oneida belonged.
The Lady Indians won the second quarter against Loretto. They became the aggressor, attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line, where they hit six of seven attempts. They trimmed the 12-point deficit to just four. They made a game of it. And they limited Loretto’s Miss Basketball finalist, Karly Weathers, to just two points.
The Mustangs’ lead was seven points as the third quarter began. And then Weathers took over. The freshman scored 23 second half points, including 16 in the third quarter. Loretto’s lead quickly swelled to double-digits, and then to 20 points. Weathers would go on to be named the tournament’s most valuable player.
For one half, Oneida stood toe-to-toe against a team that would go on to finish second in the state. Loretto wound up falling to top-ranked Gibson County in the state championship game, 50-42.
Before Gibson County got to Saturday’s title game, they found themselves in a battle for survival against Midway. The Green Wave ultimately lost that semifinal game, but led Gibson County for the first two quarters and was down by just one point as the final period began. Oneida defeated Midway twice in the regular season. In fact, the Lady Indians were one of only three teams — the other being Gibson County and No. 3 Clarkrange, which was also in the state tournament — to defeat Midway after Christmas.
To get to Murfreesboro, Oneida twice knocked off ranked teams to keep its season alive. The Lady Indians upset No. 4 Tellico Plains on a neutral floor at Roane State, then upset No. 10 Cosby on the road, ending both teams’ season.
On paper, Oneida has an excellent chance of returning to Murfreesboro next year. The Lady Indians return all five of their starters, and eight of their top 10 players in terms of minutes played. In District 3-A, Midway — which finished third in the regular season before finding its groove down the stretch — loses three of five starters, as does Sunbright, which finished second in the regular season. In Region 2-A, the top team on the opposite side, Tellico Plains, is also senior-laden. Winning the region and avoiding a trip to Cosby will likely be key; the Eagles return all of their starters.
But games aren’t played on paper, and the question of whether Oneida can make a return trip to Murfreesboro won’t begin to be answered until the 2019-2020 season starts in November. Getting to the state tournament is a powerful accomplishment, and the Lady Indians are a testament to that. After all, no one believed in 2005, when Oneida made its last trip to Murfreesboro, that it would be 14 years before the Lady Indians were back. Many assumed they would return the very next year.
So just getting there is an accomplishment. But it’s even sweeter when you realize that you belong. And for the vast majority of Oneida’s roster that will return next year, the motivation is there: if the Lady Indians belonged this year, what potential is within their grasp next year?