When Kentucky commit Skyy Clark transferred from Brentwood Academy to Ensworth in late October before basketball practice started, it seemed like a crushing blow for the Eagles.
But BA has roared to a 10-0 start, one of the best in school history.
It’s the Eagles’ best start since 2015-16 when they won their first 12 en route to a state title and a 29-3 record.
“I know a lot of people started to doubt us when he left because obviously he’s the top recruit in the 2022 class,” BA freshman point guard Tyler Tanner said. “Everybody else outside of us didn’t really believe in us, but I know our whole team believes in us now and forever will this whole season. We never doubted ourselves.”
Clark broke a school record with 51 points in his first game with Ensworth, where he’s averaging 27 points per game.
But BA won the NXT LVL Hoops Fest with a 68-57 win over Ensworth in the final at Christ Presbyterian Academy on Dec. 30.
“If you had told me back in October when we start we’ll be 10-0 at Christmas, I would have told you you might have been crazy, but it’s just a challenge that our guys have met,” BA coach Matt Hoppe said. “Our guys have, from Day One, just really bought in to everything that we’ve tried to get them to do. It’s kind of a continuation from last year. There are no egos and they want to win.”
The Eagles return three starters from last year’s 18-7 team that made it to the Division II-AA quarterfinals.
Guard Trent McNair, a 6-foot-4 junior who averages over 20 points per game, leads the Eagles in scoring. He was named MVP of the NXT LVL tournament.
“He’s been fantastic, but it’s not just him scoring,” Hoppe said. “It’s just he’s been a great leader for us. He’s always coming off the floor encouraging his teammates, encouraging us as coaches.”
McNair grew 3 inches during the offseason when he spent countless hours in the weight room and the gym, turning himself into a complete player.
His late father, Steve, was a star quarterback for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans from 1995-2005. He led the Titans to a runner-up finish in the Super Bowl after the 1999 season.
His dad’s toughness is one of Trent’s favorite memories.
“No matter what injury he had, he was going right out there,” Trent said. “If it was a broken finger, pop it right back into place and go on back out there and play.”
Trent has a chain with Steve’s face on it to remember his father.
Trent’s older brother, Tyler, started at forward on BA’s state champion team in 2015.
Tanner, returning starters Caleb Brooks (6-3 senior wing) and DJ Senter (6-3 junior forward) and North Carolina football signee Eli Sutton (6-7 senior post) round out the Eagles’ starting five.
Brooks and Senter average in double figures for scoring and Tanner is close to that. The Eagles’ rotation is nine deep.
“We feel pretty good about it, but we’ve still got more to go,” Brooks said of the good start. “So we’re focused on this upcoming second season as we call it.”
The Eagles have shown they can win close games. Sophomore Alec Rasmussen’s layup with four seconds left gave BA a 50-48 win at Baylor on Nov. 24.
McNair sank two foul shots with .8 second left to lift the Eagles to a 61-60 win over Ravenwood in the first round of the NXT LVL tournament on Dec. 28. He made eight straight free throws in the fourth quarter, rallying BA to a come-from-behind win.
“He’s got a really good first step, he can finish around the rim, he’s a great athlete,” Ravenwood coach Patrick Whitlock said. “He can shoot it well enough to where you have to guard him at the 3-point line, but once he gets in the paint he’s really hard to stop.”
One intangible makes Bentwood Academy unique.
“I think the thing that sticks out to me is they just find ways to win games,” Whitlock said. “They had a one-point win over us, a relatively close game with CPA, close game against Ensworth, close game against Riverdale. We had an eight-point lead (over BA) with about three minutes to go and they were able to kind of steal one from us.”
Losing Clark may have helped BA in a strange way.
“I think one thing they’ve got going for them is they’ve got good balance,” Whitlock said. “If Skyy was still there, he would probably be getting the majority of the shots.”
McNair impressed CPA coach Drew Maddux in a 67-61 loss to BA in the NXT LVL semifinals on Dec. 29.
“Trent McNair, to me, is the most improved player that I’ve seen in high school basketball this year,” Maddux said. “His skill set, his ability to score around the rim, his jump shot from the 3-point line is much improved.”
McNair inherited some exceptional athletic genes from his dad, who played in three Pro Bowls and was the NFL Co-Most Valuable Player in 2003.
“He also, with his last name, has that perseverance quality or that ability to finish plays like you would think of with his dad,” Maddux said. “Against Ravenwood, he made every free throw in the fourth quarter. It was like he had ice in his veins.”
Gritty defense and strong rebounding have also played into BA’s success.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hindered the Eagles’ schedule.
“We’ve had teams cancel, we’ve lost some games,” Hoppe said. “For us, that’s been the biggest part of it. Fortunately, it hasn’t affected us in terms of quarantining or guys having to miss (games or practices). And I think our school has done a good job with all the protocols that we followed and contact tracing and stuff like that.”
Hoppe, a former guard-forward who graduated from BA in 1995, is in his second year as head coach after replacing TSSAA Hall of Famer Hubie Smith.
BA returns to action at Pope John Paul II on Friday night.
Injured Garland playing well
Former BA point guard Darius Garland is averaging 17.2 points and 6.3 assists in his second NBA season with the Cleveland Cavaliers (4-4).
He missed the Cavs’ last two games with a sprained right shoulder.
“I talked to him last week,” Hoppe said. “They’re one of the up and coming teams in the East. He may get some time off in February and try to come down and watch us play a game.”