E.A. Sports Today

Playing with purpose

Yellow Jackets use tournament bonding, experience to build an identity to carry them through second half of season

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

HUNTSVILLE – There’s a reason the Oxford basketball team has been coming to the Huntsville City Classic all these years and it goes beyond just getting two or three extra games on the schedule.

Every year the Yellow Jackets come here, they come seeking an identity and looking to make a turn into the home stretch. It has traditionally been the place they have turned the corner for a strong second-half run that lands them in the tournament.

They moved in that direction again Monday when the Yellow Jackets shut down Buckhorn and its brilliant eighth-grader Caleb Holt, 47-37. 

“This trip is put into the schedule for us to grow as a group and come together,” Jackets coach Joel VanMeter said. “I don’t think it’s my doing. I think I’ve just been very lucky the last three or four years that it’s worked out that way, and hopefully it’ll work out that way this year.

“This is kind of the turning point for every team. If you make that turn right now you’re going to have a chance to be pretty good. If you don’t make that turn right now, then it’s probably going to be a subpar year.”

Several years ago, VanMeter directly credited the bonding experience the Jackets had here as the springboard for their first Calhoun County Tournament title in a while. Two years ago, they came up here looking to find some leadership at the point. Kobe Warren blossomed in the semifinals against Mae Jemison and emerged as the final piece to their puzzle.

“They preach to you in basketball it’s a marathon, not a sprint, it’s a long journey,” senior Rylan Houck said. “When you’re halfway through the season, that’s when you’re body starts hurting and it’s really easy to tap-it, give out.

“In this tournament you want to go out there and shine, you want to go out there and be the best team, you want to prove what you can do, so it doesn’t let you off. You have to push over any mental block you face. It’s very easily a strong point in our season.”

This year, the Jackets (9-7) came in with an inexperienced group looking for some growth. They grew Monday in the sense that they found other answers when Houck struggled offensively.

Houck, the Jackets’ latest 1,000-point career scorer, was their top scorer in the game with 11 points, but he was just 3-of-14 from the field, 2-of-7 from behind the arc.

It was the production of guards Mike McGraw, Kyler Wright and Jaylen Alexander that proved the difference between winning and losing. That, and Buckhorn (7-7) going a dreadful 8-of-18 from the free throw line, 3-for-8 in the fourth quarter.

Wright and Alexander scored 10 points apiece and McGraw grabbed seven rebounds.

Holt, the fourth-ranked eighth-grader in the country, led all scorers with 18 points. He went 3-for-5 from 3-point range, blocked Houck once and also had five rebounds and four steals in 26 minutes.

He kept his team in it until the Jackets’ defense kicked it up a notch in the third quarter and helped them pull away.

“Every team you play here, no matter who you get matched up with, you know it’s going to be a skilled team and that really makes you work really hard,” Wright said. “This year we lost some games some people were expecting us to win so coming here and expecting to have to play hard and play at our best to win games that pushes us to the next level.”

The challenge gets a little tougher Tuesday when the Jackets put their defensive success against Sparkman (14-4), a team that crushed Columbia 93-37 in the day’s first game. Timbre Kirk scored 30 off the bench for Sparkman, going 9-for-19 from 3-point range.

“They’re very high-powered offensively,” VanMeter said. “We played them this summer and they put a knot on our head, I’ll be honest with you. It’ll be a great test to us, but how much different is it than going against Pinson or Huffman or Drew? It’s another opportunity for us to go out against a quality opponent and try to get better.”

And, after all, that’s what the trip here is all about.

“The competition here is just so high, no matter who you’re playing here it’s a good team and getting you ready to know who you’re going to see in the region,” McGraw said. “This really gets you ready to know how much better you’ve got to get. Whether you win your games or not, it’s always going to get better and lets you know how you measure up.”

Cover photo: Oxford’s Rylan Houck (2) and Buckhorn’s Caleb Holt prepare for an in-bounds play during their Huntsville City Classic game Monday.

Oxford 47, Buckhorn 37
OXFORD (9-7) –
Rylan Houck 3-14 3-4 11, Kyler Wright 4-10 0-0 10, J.D. Jones 2-5 1-1 6, Mike McGraw 1-3 2-2 4, Jayden Lewis 2-2 0-0 4, Jaylen Alexander 4-6 2-3 10, Aaron McFarland 0-1 0-0 0, Ashton Mitchell 1-1 0-0 2, Christian Gibson 0-0 0-0 0, Brock Reaves 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-42 8-10 47.
BUCKHORN (7-7) – Terrence Robinson 0-2 1-2 1, Jeremiah Wilson 1-5 2-4 4, Julian Bradford 0-5 0-2 0, Caleb Holt 6-9 3-4 18, Trent Barnes 2-7 2-2 6, Josh Barnes 0-0 0-0 0, Austen Childress 0-2 0-4 0, Carter Malires 1-3 0-0 3, Kyler Douglass 2-4 0-0 5, Luke Hill 0-1 0-0 0, Jackson Ramsey 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 12-39 8-18 37.
Oxford             13  11 11  12  –  47
Buckhorn          8  10   7  12  –  37
3-point goals; Oxford 5-16 (Houck 2-7, Wright 2-7, Jones 1-2); Buckhorn 5-15 (Wilson 0-2, Bradford 0-3, Holt 3-5, T. Branes 0-1, Childress 0-1, Malires 1-2, Douglass 1-1, Ramsey 0-1). Rebounds: Oxford 34 (Houck 8, McGraw 7, Jones 5); Buckhorn 24 (Holt 5). Fouled out: Lewis. Total fouls: Oxford 12, Buckhorn 10.

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