With four returning starters from a state championship team, Evangel Christian’s basketball team was supposed to be good.
But with no experienced depth and a schedule unrivaled in the Alabama Independent School Association, the Lions’ record surprises just about everyone, including their coach.
“Just being realistic, 22-1 wasn’t even in my mind,” Kerwin Washington said. “Look at the better teams. They still have about three or four losses. It’s a combination of a lot of things, starting with our kids. We have some continuity from last year’s team, even though we lost some kids. My assistant coaches have been great this year. All three of my assistant coaches have previously been players in the program so they understand what the program is about and what I want.”
Washington didn’t shy away from anyone this year. He missed scheduling AAA defending champion Bessemer, but defeated the other three teams in last year’s final four and five of the elite eight; scheduled and defeated three of the final four teams in last year’s AA tournament; and defeated two of the other three teams in last year’s final four in Class A.
“I think it prepared us a lot,” senior captain Jordan Grice said, “because playing against the bigger teams from other areas, it helped get our confidence up. If we didn’t have any confidence, we wouldn’t be the team we are today.”
Confidence helps, along with the play of junior point guard Tyree Curry.
“Without a doubt, no team has success without a great point guard,” Washington said. “Through my 13-plus years here, we’ve had great point guard play and I attribute a lot of our success to that. He is a huge difference in games. If you’re talking about Evangel, his name comes up first.”
He averages 15.1 points per game to lead the team, but would rather distribute the ball to his teammates.
“I just like to get my teammates better, get them involved,” he said. “I don’t like my teammates thinking they’re never going to get the ball. I like having my teammates where they like to play with me.”
As junior captain Marcus Townsend put it, “he can shoot the lights out and he knows how to get his teammates into the game.”
Grice said Curry works non-stop on improving his craft, even when he’s not working out under the watchful eyes of his coach.
“Outside of school, when he and I are at the gym, his work ethic is very strong,” Grice said. “He works on his weaknesses as well as his strengths. And he tries to get everybody involved in what he does – ballhandling, shooting, defense – no matter who it is.
“I’d have to say his IQ (is his most impressive asset), when he knows a person is going to do their move and he beats them to the spot.”
Their impressive start included a bump in the road against Success Unlimited – a team that will be playing in the AAA state tournament in two weeks – but came against teams that tried to throw a variety of defensive gimmicks and schemes at the Lions, something Curry has learned to expect.
“That might be the hardest thing,” Curry said. “Watching film, you’re thinking they’re going to come out in this defense (and instead they switch to something different). I think I can see defenses better (this year) and read defenses now. My IQ got better from last year.”
But while he’s proud of his ability to direct the offense and to get his teammates involved, Curry is one of AISA’s best defenders as well, holding Chambers’ Payton Allen – one of three AISA finalists for Mr. Basketball last season – in check in the state championship game to earn tournament most valuable player honors.
“I especially like playing someone that everybody thinks is going to give you a hard time,” Curry said. “I like playing games like that.”
For a traditionalist like Washington, the then-sophomore’s ability to take on the senior leader of the opposing team was a defining moment in his point guard’s career.
“He’s unique, different from the other guards we’ve had,” Washington said. “We’ve had quick, defensive guards, guards that can run the stuff we want to run, athletic guards. He’s a rare mix. Going back to the championship game, he held one of the top players to six points when he had been averaging more than 20 a game. You don’t do that if you can’t play defense. Ty took it upon himself – I didn’t put him on him, that’s what he wanted.”
That early-season loss to Success Unlimited brought out some of the best (defense) and some of the worst (offense) from Evangel, but the Lions rebounded to win their last 16 consecutive games.
“I think (the schedule) prepared us a lot, especially with us playing (tougher opponents) early in the season to see where we’re at, to see what we need to work on for later in the season,” Curry said, adding that it exposed the Lions’ “defense at the beginning of the season. We gave up a lot of 3s and a lot of drives from guards.”
“I thought there would be way more losses, to be honest,” Grice said, “because we had a lot of people coming in from different schools. The people that we had coming back, it was hard to keep up what we were doing because we had to start over again with a lot of young 10th graders.”
Yet here they are, prohibitive favorites to win their final three area games against Eastwood (twice) and Crenshaw Christian and even their Elite Eight game, likely against Meadowview Christian or North River Christian. At that point, the team that has played in three consecutive Class A championship games would be one win away from doing it again.
“We had lost a lot of players so I wasn’t real confident coming into the season,” Townsend said. “I knew that we had the right practices, the hard work and the people coming back to work toward a championship. We didn’t think we were going to be here. We thought we’d have a terrible season, but we stayed together and made it happen.”