E.A. Sports Today

Simmons steps up

Senior guard answers the bell as Cardinals open defense of third straight state title with rout of Faith; Lady Cards win in Harrell’s return

New Sacred Heart girls basketball coach Marcus Harrell (crimson shirt) watches intently as the action on his end of the floor unfolds.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

After three seasons as a role player on Sacred Heart’s basketball team, Murdock Simmons has a leadership role to play this season as the Cardinals chase a fourth straight Class 1A state championship.

But the role intensified four days ago when Diante Wood, the Cardinals’ most decorated returning player, the top prospect in the state and an Alabama signee, saw the start of his senior season delayed by an ankle injury of uncertain severity.

Simmons never backed down Monday night as the Cardinals opened the defense of their multiple state titles with an easy 87-25 win over Faith Christian that also was an area game.

The senior guard scored nine of his team’s first 11 points, 13 in the first quarter and 19 in the first half as the Cardinals ran out to a 46-2 lead with more than five minutes left in the second quarter. He finished with a game-high 21 points.

“Murdock played really well,” Cardinals coach Ralph Graves said. “We saw it in practice this past week and we saw it before the game. Murdock has stepped in as a leader. He’s telling the new guys we have this is the way we do it here and this is the way it’s going to be done.

“I’m just proud of him for stepping up into that role and not shying away from that responsibility. To see him come out tonight and play extremely well as a leader, I’m proud of him for that … and when Diante comes back hopefully he and Murdock will work together as a unit to say this is what we’re going to do.”

Wood, the two-time Class 1A Player of the Year and Final Four MVP, gave the Cardinals’ a dominant inside presence even though he’s expected to be a wing at the next level and Simmons is a big guard. But that all changed Friday – two days after he signed with Alabama — when Wood suffered a strained tendon in his left ankle during the team’s Cardinal Night preseason rouser.

“It’s a bad way to start off my senior year,” Wood said. “I’m just sad for the team.”

Wood cheered on his teammates Monday from the bench in street clothes with a protective boot on his injured foot. Graves considers him day-to-day. The senior is expected to be reexamined Tuesday, hours before the Cardinals leave to play Mountain Brook in one of the most anticipated games in the state.

For however long Wood is out Simmons will be the Cardinals’ most experienced player on the floor and with that comes added responsibility.

“I’ve got to play the position he plays so that we can win, but I have to get better at doing it so we’re able to win,” he said. “I’ll have to play more in the post, rebound more, can’t be shooting 3s and bringing the ball up the court.

“I’ve got to be a leader. Since the other two (Kevion Nolan and D.J. Heath) left, me and Diante have to step up because we’ve been here the longest. I think I can handle it. Trying to get better at it, trying to lead the team.”

Jack Miller, who had 18 against Faith in his first varsity start last year when the Cardinals opened a six-game stretch without four suspended starters, started in Wood’s place Monday night, but that’s not necessarily what will happen if Wood’s absence is prolonged. Besides, Graves is more concerned with the hottest five players being on the floor at the same time than who starts the game.

“I think it was really good for our team to end up playing without him so they can learn how they are without him and he can see where he fits in with them,” Graves said. “I think once we get back everybody locked and loaded I think we’ll be ready.”

Obviously, this opener was a lot different than the ones the Cardinals had the years after their first two titles — Gadsden City and Mae Jemison – and this was the first one they had won in at least five years. Actually, they were supposed to open with Mountain Brook, but with its late coaching change Faith was late to schedule and the opener was about the only date Sacred Heart had available.

Regardless the opponent, Graves was pleased with the effort. The Cardinals jumped out to a 46-2 lead, holding the Lions without a field goal until Andrew Huie’s layup at the 5:39 mark of the second quarter. It was Faith’s only field goal in a 65-8 half.

It was such a one-sided affair, every available Sacred Heart player had gotten into the game within the first five minutes. It’s a practice Graves plans to employ against Mountain Brook as well.

“I thought our energy was there, our effort was there,” he said. “I was very proud of the way they played defense and got after it. That’s something we emphasize every day at practice and to see them come out and do it tonight I thought it was pretty good.”

“We would have come out with a lot of energy against Mountain Brook, Mae Jemison, anybody,” Simmons said. “We just come out and play the same. Like coach says play the game and not just play the team.”

The Sacred Heart girls beat Faith 55-46 in Marcus Harrell’s return to varsity coaching. Harrell coached the White Plains girls golf team to back-to-back state championships in 2015 and 2016, but left the school shortly after the second title in a dispute with administrators over championship rings.

“It was fun to be back,” Harrell said. “I didn’t realize how much until right before the game started.”

The Lady Cardinals had a strong inside-out presence from post Ayanna Foster and guard Iemyiah Harris. Both had 15 points in the first half and 24 in the game.

Harris opened the game with the first of her three 3-pointers and then buried two in a row to open the fourth quarter after Faith cut Sacred Heart’s lead to single digits. Foster had the first seven points of the second quarter, the last three coming on a three-point play after she blocked a shot at the other end.

“That’s big for us,” Harrell said. “Especially in girls basketball if you have a point guard and a post player you can compete with a lot of players. The biggest thing for us was though they were already good players, we’re just having to increase the skill we have in trying to create plays and opportunities for them to have chances to make buckets.”

The game started out easy for Lady Cardinals, but it wound up being anything but that. The Lady Lions, also playing for a coach in her first year with the program (Casey Farr), cut an early 13-point deficit to six with as much as three minutes to go in the first half.

Sydney Johnson had seven points in an 8-0 run that made it 24-18 and then scored six six points in a row in the fourth quarter that got the Lady Lions within 10 with 2:44 to play. Johnson finished with 15 points, as did Kristin Covington.

On the cover: Sacred Heart’s Murdock Simmons (4), shown in a game last season against Spring Garden, led the Cardinals to a season-opening victory over Faith Christian. (File photo by B.J. Franklin)

Sacred Heart 87, Faith Christian 25

FAITH CHRISTIAN (0-1) – Banks Cotton 1 0-0 2, Stone Huie 1 0-3 2, Jacob Cleckler 0 3-4 3, Mike McGraw 4 1-7 9, Josh Rutledge 1 0-2 2, Bailey Thomas 1 1-2 3, Seth Cravens 0 4-4 4. Totals 8 9-22 25.

SACRED HEART (1-0) – Quin Riggins 5 0-0 11, Victor Wilson 2 0-0 4, Jack Miller 2 0-0 5, Murdock Simmons 10 1-1 21, Caleb Brown 5 0-0 11, Josh Brown 3 1-3 8, Stephen Stansil 1 0-0 2, JonRiley Miller 0 0-0 0, Khalil Watkins 8 1-1 19, Kendarious Harris 2 0-0 6. Totals 38 3-5 87.

Faith Christian 2 6 12 5 — 25
Sacred Heart 32 33 12 10 — 87

3-point goals: Sacred Heart 8 (Riggins, J. Miller, C. Brown, J. Brown, Watkins 2, Harris 2). Technical fouls: Watkins. Total fouls: Faith Christian 11, Sacred Heart 19. Officials: Burroughs, Barber, Kelly.

Sacred Heart 55, Faith Christian 46

FAITH CHRISTIAN (0-1) – Kristin Covington 4 7-7 15, Sydnee Johnson 5 4-11 15, Montana Huie 1 0-0 2, Sarah McVeigh 1 1-4 3, Logan Boyd 1 0-2 3, Emily Sills 1 6-6 8, Sydney Parker 0 0-0 0. Totals 13 18-30 46.

SACRED HEART (1-0) – Iemyiah Harris 9 3-4 24, Abbie Vingers 0 0-0 0, Alyssa Bell 0 1-2 1, Sydney Marion 0 0-0 0, Ayanna Foster 11 2-8 24, Tosin Sanusi 0 0-0 0, Jacque Beyerle 1 2-2 4, Joelle Tillery 1 0-0 2. Totals 22 8-16 55.

3-point goals: Faith Christian 2 (Johnson, Boyd); Sacred Heart 3 (Harris 3). Fouled out: Huie, Foster. Total fouls: Faith Christian 16, Sacred Heart 20. Officials: Burroughs, Kelly, Barber.

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