By Cam Huffman
Defending Class AAA state champion Greenbrier East was supposed to be down after losing two of its stars from last year’s team — second-team all-state selection Anna Hammaker and all-state honorable mention pick Cheyenne Hooper — which finished the season 26-1 and beat Bridgeport in the championship game.
Shady Spring isn’t buying that prediction.
The Lady Spartans (1-0) began their title defense with a convincing 65-38 home victory over the visiting Tigers (0-1) Tuesday night at Spartan Gymnasium as Chaunté McDowell scored 14 points and recorded eight steals and head coach Jim Justice got plenty of experience for the East reserves.
Using a smothering defense — mainly switching between a 2-3 zone and man-to-man — East forced turnovers for easy buckets and showed a hot hand from behind the 3-point arc in the early going, scoring 19 of the game’s first 21 points to end any drama before the crowd really got settled in its seats.
“We’re the defending state champs, so we’ve got kids that can play,” said Justice, who coaches both the boys and girls teams at East. “Our kids feel like they have something to prove, and we’re getting better. Overall, for the first night, I’d give them a B.”
Without the clear size advantage and automatic offensive threats they had a year ago, the Spartans had to use defense and hustle to get the job done. East forced 39 Shady turnovers, including 32 steals, and won the rebounding battle 48-40. Thirty-three of those rebounds came on the offensive glass, as the Spartans cashed in on second and third opportunities.
“That’s just them really working,” said Justice. “They know they’re behind the eight ball, and they know they don’t have any size. So they really get after it.”
Down 20-4 after the opening period, Shady, which had only two field goals midway through the second quarter, showed some fight, scoring 13 points in the second and 12 in the third to finally dent the scoreboard. Sophomore guard Morgan Hylton scored a game-high 19 points, including a 5-for-13 mark from 3-point range, pulling the trigger at the slightest defensive opening. Senior center Kaylee Dickenson added a double-double with 11 points and 18 boards, including 15 on the offensive glass.
“That first quarter was brutal,” said second-year Shady Spring head coach Brandon Bennett. “I don’t know if it was the nerves from our first game of being a AAA school playing a team like Greenbrier East or what. We struggled that first quarter, but we didn’t quit. We hit some 3s and played better defense.”
The bad news for the Tigers is that they found little offense from anywhere else. Shady played just seven players all evening, and, other than Hylton and Dickerson, nobody scored more than six points.
East, on the other hand, was able to play 11 girls, including nine who saw at least 12 minutes of action, as Justice attempted to work on what he considers one of his squad’s weaknesses — depth.
First-team all-state selection Bianca André, nursing a tailbone injury, wasn’t her normal self, scoring just six points and grabbing four rebounds, but she found plenty of help.
Elizabeth Romeo scored nine points and dished out four assists, and Chloe Honaker, the new starter at point guard, had seven points and four assists. The other starter, Maddee Carroll, an undersized center who thrives on pure hustle, ended the game with six points and four rebounds in the middle.
The Spartan bench, at times playing with all reserves on the floor at one time, accounted for 25 points, including six each from CeCe Grant and Caitland Boggs, who also had a big night on the boards with nine rebounds.
The Spartans shot 35 percent from the field in the opening half, including 4-of-8 from 3-point land, but struggled the rest of the way, shooting just 25 percent.
“It’s hard to keep focused when you’re ahead 20-4,” said Justice. “But we missed too many layups. You’ll see a different team when they really have to suck it up and play.”
East, though, managed to outscore the visitors in every quarter, and a large opening night crowd never had to panic.
“They’re definitely a tough team,” said Bennett. “They’re a high-pressure team, and their ability to shoot outside allows them to play typical Greenbrier East basketball.”
The Spartans will play again Dec. 7 when they host Rockbridge (Va.) High School. There will be a special championship banner unveiling at that game, scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. start.
Shady will host Liberty at 6 p.m. Thursday.
“We can definitely build off (the loss),” said Bennett. “We’ve got some work to do, there’s no doubt. But we feel like we’re going to have a pretty good team this year.”
Greenbrier East 65, Shady Spring 38
Shady Spring (0-1)
Kelsea Collins 0 1-4 1, Morgan Hylton 5 3-4 18, McKenzie Severt 1 0-0 2, Kaylee Dickenson 3 5-6 11, Brooklyn Meador 0 0-0 0, Rebeccoa Rhudy 1 4-6 6, Keyra Chitwood 0 0-0 0. Totals 10 13-20 38.
Greenbrier East (1-0)
Elizabeth Romeo 3 2-4 9, Bianca Andre 3 0-0 6, Maddee Carroll 2 0-0 4, Chloe Honaker 3 0-0 7, Chaunte McDowell 6 0-0 14, Kristen Talbott 0 0-0 0, Victoria Krystynak 3 0-0 7, Kat Walton 1 0-0 2, Lexi Tincher 2 0-0 4, Caitland Boggs 2 2-2 6, CeCe Grant 3 0-0 6. Totals 28 4-7 65.
SS 4 13 12 9 — 38
GE 20 18 16 11 — 65
Three-point goals — SS: 5 (Hylton 5); GE: 5 (McDowell 2, Romeo, Honaker, Krystynak); Fouled out — none.