By Rubin E. Grant
Hoover girls basketball coach Krystle Johnson was more than a little cranky after the Bucs’ first loss of the season.
After opening the season with three double-digit victories, the Bucs suffered a humiliating 42-29 setback at Ramsay.
“I don’t think (Ramsay) was that good,” Johnson grumbled. “We just played that bad.”
Hoover was without its leading scorer, sophomore Aniya Hubbard, who had scored 17 points against Huffman and 25 against Madison Academy in the first two games. She missed the game because of a concussion.
But Johnson wasn’t buying Hubbard’s absence as an excuse for the Bucs’ effort against the Rams. “She didn’t play against Anniston and we still won (51-38),” Johnson snapped.
Then she added, “Regardless of who plays, we have to play a certain way, up to a certain standard.”
Johnson expects championship caliber play whenever her team steps on the court. That’s just her way after guiding Hoover to Class 7A state championships in two of the past three seasons, including 2018-2019 when the Bucs finished with a 34-1 record.
Even so, Johnson knows this team will have some growing pains.
“I think we’ll win some games, but some nights we will be inconsistent, like against Ramsay,” Johnson said. “That’s the nature of a young team.”
Since the loss to Ramsay, the Bucs (9-1) have reeled off six consecutive victories. They went 3-0 in the BallN Prep Thanksgiving Bash in Huntsville, beating James Clemens 68-32, St. Francis (GA) 84-69 and Maynard Jackson (GA) 57-24. Last week, they overwhelmed Shades Valley 72-10 and routed crosstown rival Spain Park 56-32 behind freshman Reniya Kelly’s 17 points.
On Saturday, the Bucs edged Houston, Tenn., 47-45 on Kelly’s clutch fourth-quarter free throws in the Heels 2 Hoopers Hoopfest at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis. Hubbard led Hoover with 19 points.
Johnson earned her 200th career win with the victory.
The Bucs graduated four players off their 2019 championship team who are now college athletes. Joiya Maddox (Rutgers), Skyla Knight (University of Arkansas at Little Rock), and Miya Kimber (West Alabama) are all playing college basketball, while Melanie Hall is a track and field athlete at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa.
The Bucs returned six players from last season, but only four who received significant playing time — senior Madison Adamson, junior Jada Knight, Kelly and Hubbard. The 6-foot-2 Adamson and guard Janae Hubbard are the Bucs’ only two seniors.
“We’re not as deep as we were last year,” Johnson said. “We have some height, but we’re inexperienced in some spots.”
Johnson hopes 6-2 junior Rachel Hager will give the Bucs some valuable minutes. She was pulled up to the varsity as an eighth-grader and played some as a freshman and sophomore, although she was beset by injuries for part of last season.
“She should step up as long as she’s been around the program,” Johnson said.
Kristen McMillan, a 6-2 freshman transfer from Spain Park, also has some varsity experience.
Sophomore guards Devon Davidson and Campbell Hecklinski and freshman post players, 6-1 Olivia Johnigan and 5-11 Haleigh Cephus, round out the roster.
The Bucs have a demanding early season schedule that continued this week with home games against Wenonah on Tuesday and Hewitt-Trussville on Friday. Hoover beat Hewitt 47-33 in the Class 7A championship game last season.
“We’ve got a lot of young players,” Johnson said. “That’s why I made our schedule so difficult. I want them to understand they cannot take a single game off.”
Johnson also hopes the tough competition will help the Bucs when Class 7A, Area 5 play starts in January. Oak Mountain, Thompson and Tuscaloosa County are Hoover’s area foes.
“I’m waiting for January to see what kind of team we are,” Johnson said. “I definitely think we have a team capable of winning another state championship. It’s going to take some time. I’m kind of impatient, but I don’t have a choice.”