Damjan Simun did not play when The King's Academy hosted Heritage on Nov. 30, but he almost made the difference Thursday at Heritage High School.
The junior guard continually found ways to get to the rim, forcing the Mountaineers to shift to a 3-2 zone as it attempted to complete a season sweep of the Lions.
The defensive switch paid off as Heritage limited The King's Academy to five points over the final six minutes, 23 seconds en route to a 50-45 victory.
"We were just atrocious guarding the high-ball screen," Heritage coach Brad Flatford told The Daily Times. "(Simun) was getting to the rim and getting easy buckets, so we had to do something because if we didn't we probably get beat.
"We went to our 3-2 zone and just hoped they would miss some shots and we'd get some rebounds down the stretch, and luckily we made enough plays to win."
Heritage (5-4) opened the second quarter with 10 unanswered points, but The King's Academy (1-7) clawed back, entering halftime trailing 25-23. The Lions either led or were within one possession of the Mountaineers for most of the second half until the final minutes.
Senior guard Tyler Overdorf hit a 3-pointer with 6:23 to play to give The King's Academy a 40-39 lead, but Heritage switched to its zone shortly after, and the Lions endured a 2:19 scoring drought. Heritage junior Jet Murrell scored in the paint and junior Chase Ridings hit a 3 during that span, and the Mountaineers never trailed again.
The King's Academy got within one twice, but each time Heritage had an answer — the first from sophomore guard Jamin Russell and the second from junior forward Grant Campbell. Russell hit two of four free-throw attempts in the final 17 seconds to seal the victory.
"That zone bothered us a little bit," The King's Academy coach Sean Jones said. "Grant Campbell is so big inside, and he really affects everything around the rim. They packed another guy in there and spread us out. I thought we got good looks and drew some things up to get us opportunities, which is really all you can ask for down the stretch, but we just didn't knock them down.
"I think later in the year if you told me we would have those same opportunities, I would feel really good and put the same guys in the same positions."
Each team had three scorers in double figures. Russell paced the Mountaineers with 12 points while Campbell and junior guard Dylan Varitek added 11. Simun tallied 12 points for the Lions and was aided by 11 from sophomore forward Harrison Rollins and 10 from Overdorf.
"(Simun) makes such a big difference for us," Jones said. "The interesting thing about him is his entire world has been flipped upside down in a month. He's moved across the world, he's speaking a second language around all new people and playing a different style of basketball that he's not used to playing.
"When he gets comfortable and settles in, he's going to be a huge part of what we do. He was kind of able to take over the game and will us to some points, and he draws so much attention that if our guys can be ready to shoot, I think he's going to help us open up our offense."
That seems to be the reason the Lions have not had success early in this season, but as the pieces continue to come together — including the return of senior center Ben Holley — that should change.
"I told my guys that I hate it for them because I know they want to see the success on the scoreboard, but I'm super proud of them because they are battling," Jones said. "They're so close. I don't care about the numbers right now. I promise that those guys are going to knock down shots, and when the shots start falling we're going to be a dangerous team because I think they have an edge to them."
Heritage could say the same thing, even after a performance that Flatford felt was lackluster. The Mountaineers have won five of their six games, a string of success it has not experienced since the 2016-17 season.
Heritage has already surpassed its win totals from 2017-18 and 2018-19 and is a victory away from matching the six wins it had in each of the past two seasons.
"I do think we're gaining confidence, but with that, there are still things you have to fight through," Flatford said. "After playing really well on Tuesday (against Seymour) I could kind of see during shootaround and our walkthrough that we weren't as focused as we needed to be. That comes with trying to build a program and winning."
Heritage Lady Mountaineers 63, The King's Academy 23: The Heritage girls basketball team spent the first quarter working on a zone defense it has seldom used, but that was not the cause of Rick Howard’s early frustration.
The Heritage coach called a timeout and sat junior point guard Bekah Gardner on the bench for walking the ball up court instead of playing at the Lady Mountaineers desired pace.
The message was received loud and clear. The offensive production Heritage lacked in the opening period surfaced in the second quarter and commenced the rout.
“We’re learning and getting better at playing at that pace,” Howard said. “I think Bekah has to learn not to walk the ball up. We have to push the ball and get a shot.”
Heritage (7-2) scored 22 points in the second quarter after tallying 11 in the first. It did so while keeping The King’s Academy (1-7) off the scoreboard, turning a 5-point lead into a 33-6 advantage at the intermission.
Gardner and senior KJ Lasorsa also opened the third quarter with 3-pointers to stretch the run to 28 unanswered points before The King’s Academy eighth grader Brady Branan split a pair of free throws to end the drought.
“We wanted to work on our zone, and we got off to a slow start, but we still held them,” Howard said. “Then I had to get the juices flowing so we decided to press and go to man and turned it up.
“Games like this are always good to work on certain things that you’ve seen you need help on. A lot of our girls started talking and grew up a little bit tonight because we have a lot of people playing in positions that they didn’t play in last year.”
Lasorsa led the Lady Mountaineers with 15 points while sophomore Jay Coker added 12.
The King’s Academy, led by Cassie George’s nine points, showed more life in the second half, scoring 10 points in the third and seven in the fourth to nearly triple its first-half output.
“I told them at halftime that we can’t come down, make one pass and shoot,” The King’s Academy coach Dante Turnipseed said. “We wanted to make them work a little bit on defense. My guards also have to take care of the basketball because we can’t keep giving it to them and letting them shoot it.
“Keeping the ball in our hands is our biggest problem right now, but we’re young and we’re putting freshmen in the fire. We’re starting four freshman, so hopefully we can learn as we go and get better during the year.”
Heritage played to its standard of defense, getting in passing lanes to create transition buckets on the other end.
The King’s Academy was the latest victim, but it also provided a learning experience for a program that is attempting to build a foundation for the consistent success that the Lady Mountaineers seem to enjoy each season.
“That effort they give, we usually don’t see that a lot, so it’s a punch in the face for us,” Turnipseed said. “But I want us to look and learn from that. I told them in (the locker room), ‘Do you see how hard they play and how up in your face they play?’ We can take that and go and ply whoever we play in our league and go and play the same way. That helps you, especially when you’re having trouble dribbling the ball because if you put pressure and get steals, you don’t have to run an offense.
“I love playing these teams so my girls can see that. Their eyes are kind of wide open, but this is what basketball is. It helps us big time, especially with us being young. In two or three years, we’ll be used to that and be a better team.”