Catholic is reeling now.
Intent on finishing the Irish before they can gather themselves, Tracy Hardiman pushes the ball hard down the right side on the break. Three Catholic defenders, including one at Hardiman’s left shoulder, are coming fast.
Just short of the basket, Hardiman lofts a soft pass back over her right shoulder to a waiting Lauren Burnett - on the left wing!
With the Heritage student section rising for emphasis, Burnett swishes a wide open 3 that opens the Lady Mountaineer lead to 14, Heritage pulling well clear down the stretch to collect a comfortable, 54-34 District 4AAA win.
“When she drives, she knows they’re coming,” Burnett said.
A year ago, Hardiman likely would not have attempted such a high-speed, high-risk, no-look, crosscourt assist. Two years ago, Lady Mountaineer coach Rick Howard would have had a cow.
Burnett and Hardiman, both seniors, now play with a chemistry that’s equal parts familiarity and necessity. The district tournament is fast approaching. A retooled Lady Mountaineer lineup is flying, seemingly peaking at just the right time. With cross-county rival William Blount visiting Friday night, Heritage, despite a Tuesday loss to Farragut, can still have a major impact on the district race.
Hardiman, Burnett and fellow senior Katerina Morris are a big part of the reason why.
“It’s taken us a long time to gel,” Howard said. “We didn’t have very much consistency before Christmas. We finally became a little more patient and took better shots, and our defensive intensity has picked up tremendously.”
Howard was readying for the Lady Mountaineers to feature a formidable, inside/outside attack this season when sophomore Miranda Maples, an all-district selection as a freshman a year ago, transferred to Maryville over the summer. Only Morris returned with any experience in the post. She’d need a few games to get ready.
Until then, Howard said he knew he’d have to rely on Hardiman and Burnett, herself an all-district selection last season, to hold a very young team together. They’ve done so, he said. While the going was tough at times early on, they’ve galvanized the Lady Mountaineers into a force to be reckoned with in a couple weeks’ time.
“We knew we had to work together,” Hardiman said.
Hardiman, a Milligan College commitment, has excelled this season at the point. A deft passer and ball handler who can create her own pull-up jump shot off the dribble, her ability to collapse opposing defenses around her starts it all.
“Tracy is just strong,” Howard said. “She’s able to make passes like (the assist to Burnett). Not many high school players can do that.”
Burnett, one of the district’s top guns a year ago, has really been on a tear of late. The long-range Lady Mountaineer went for 23 and 27 points, respectively, in the two previous games prior to the Irish rout.
With much of the focus on Hardiman and Burnett early, Morris was afforded time to develop into the inside threat the Lady Mountaineers would need come postseason. The 5-foot-10 senior kept Catholic honest with points inside. Over the last four games, Morris is averaging nine rebounds per contest, Howard said.
As Heritage has begun to win by bigger and bigger margins of late, Morris has even stepped out and begun burying the trey.
The Burnett/Hardiman/Morris nucleus has morphed into a team getting big performances from a selection of players on a given night. Juniors Kayla Walker and Kathryn Inman and freshman Lindsey Burnett, Lauren’s sister, have become too dangerous to be left unattended now. Sophomore Marley Long, while only 5-6, has become a tenacious rebounder and scorer for the Lady Mountaineers beneath the basket.
“Marley has really gotten on the boards,” Burnett said. “She’s been filling it up for us, too. Even if it’s only two or three points here and there, it helps us. She’s definitely the hardest working kid we have.”
“If Marley was 6-feet tall,” Morris added, “she’d be unreal.”
The way Howard sees it, Long is already just that.
“She’s got the heart of a champion,” he said. “No doubt. Anytime I put her in the game, she’s going to give 100 percent effort. She reminds me of the old Lady Mountaineer post players that would get in there and just band and bang.”
Heritage’s late-season charge was not without a horn blast to signal its onset. The season’s signature win to date, Howard said, came when a struggling Lady Mountaineer team knocked off then-district frontrunner Bearden, 35-29, in Knoxville last month. At the time, Howard said he was wondering whether or not his young team had come as far as it could.
“I thought the kids might just give up and turn it in,” he said. “I thought that was the turning point of the year in terms of them proving to themselves they could play with anybody.”
There’s still much work to be done, Howard said. Heritage must still win out and get a little help to secure a top-four seeding at the district tournament. However it plays out, Howard likes his chances.
“If we take a little momentum in there, I think we might make some noise,” he said. “I’d like to see these kids make a good run. They’ve worked hard.”