Every basketball team needs their glue.
Teams can be filled with superstars, shooters, defenders and everything in between. However, no team is going to be successful unless they have the glue that holds them all together and makes them run properly.
Tori Rutherford is that glue for the Grainger girls basketball team.
The point guard for the Lady Grizz, Rutherford led the program to a 62-11 record over her three years. This past season, Rutherford guided her team to a 32-4 record, making it to the state quarterfinals for the second straight year. For her performance during the 2019-2020 season, Rutherford is the Citizen Tribune All-Lakeway Area Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
“I am very grateful for this award,” Rutherford said. “I really wasn’t expecting it. I feel like I had a pretty good season this year, but that was all to my teammates. They’re the ones that set me up and push me everyday at practice to get me to where I am at, especially our seniors.”
Just a junior, Rutherford is part of a Grainger team that has stuck together since they were little, creating a chemistry that has delivered success to the Lady Grizzlies program.
That chemistry was shown more than ever during the 2019-2020 season. Grainger lost just one-game during district play in the regular season and went on a 25-game win-streak that wasn’t broken until the Region 1-AA Championship game, a 60-50 loss to Elizabethton.
That loss forced the Lady Grizz to go on the road to play their Class AA sectional game. Led by Rutherford, Grainger didn’t seem fazed, taking down Carter 60-45 to make it to the state tournament.
“The year before, we had to go on the road for sub-state, so we knew what it was going to be like,” Rutherford said. “We had been there before, and Carter hadn’t so we had that experience. We knew we were going to have to come in there and most of the gym was going to be against us. But luckily Grainger fans showed out, and I think we had more fans than them there.
“We were really prepared. Coach Bishop had us prepared, so we were ready to go.”
While the season ended in a 43-38 defeat to Westview in the Class AA state quarterfinals, it was a season to remember for all involved.
Rutherford wracked up the post-season awards for her successful season. She was named the Blue Ridge Athletic Conference’s girls MVP, a member on the All-Conference first team, the district tournament MVP and a member of the region all-tournament team.
Against Greenville, Rutherford capped off an impressive milestone, scoring her 1,000th career point, putting in 18 against the Lady Greene Devils.
“It was a great feeling,” Rutherford said. “I really didn’t expect to get it as early as I did. At the beginning of the season, I didn’t even know how many points away I was to getting it. Coach told me before the Greeneville game that I was close to getting it, but I didn’t know how many I needed. But afterwards I found out that I got it, and I was so excited. I was so glad that all my hard work paid off.”
While Rutherford can score the ball, and can score it with ease, that is not what she is known for on the court. With Grainger being so veteran heavy, Rutherford doesn’t have to shoot every time. Instead, she focuses on getting the ball to whoever is hot during that particular game and on her defensive ability.
Rutherford can change a game in a heartbeat with that defense, and it was never more prevalent than in the District 2-AA tournament.
In the semifinals against Cumberland Gap, with the Lady Grizz struggling, Rutherford made a game changing play right before the half, stealing an inbounds pass and bouncing it out of bounds off a Cumberland Gap player. That led to a last second shot that gave Grainger momentum. The Lady Grizz went on a 19-0 run after that and Rutherford had 10 points in the third quarter with most of those points coming off steals she forced.
Then, in the district finals against South Greene, it was Rutherford again who sparked a struggling Grainger team. Taking a five-point lead into the locker room, Rutherford put the game away in the third quarter with her defensive ability.
Grainger went on a 14-4 run, and Rutherford had four steals on five possessions, leading to easy layups. She finished with 22 points in the game.
“Coach Bishop always tells us that defense wins ball games,” Rutherford said. “So, when it’s a close game, I just really try and play harder on defense. It’s kind of harder to play defense for the whole game the way I play sometimes, but when we are there, we know what to do and kind of lock in as a unit.”
Rutherford will have plenty of talent around her for her senior season next year. The Lady Grizz, after losing in the state quarterfinals back-to-back years, will look to get over the hump in 2021.
“It (the state tournament loss) will give us a lot of motivation because our goal was to win a game in the tournament this year,” Rutherford said. “Now that we have been two years in-a-row and know how it is. We’re already getting prepared and, as soon as this virus goes away, we’re going to go back in and work hard.”