Players and coaches from the Belton-Honea Path and Pickens high schools girls’ basketball teams gathered in a small classroom at BHP following the Blue Flame’s 72-65 overtime win Friday night. Soon they were joined by a contingent of friends and family of Bears guard Aaliyah Thomas.
At first glance, judging by the pizza and drinks being consumed and all of the joy and laughter, it could have been a birthday party. Instead, it was a celebration of Thomas’ high school career, which ended prematurely Friday night, and the sportsmanship that had occurred several hours earlier.
Just seconds into the game and with the Blue Flame staked to an 8-0 lead by agreement between the teams, Thomas limped onto the court and stood underneath the basket as the opening tip-off went uncontested and bounced into her hands.
While complying with basketball rules, she promptly made four consecutive shots to tie the score at 8. With her final shot, the last chapter of her high school career had been written. It marked her 1,000th career point and the final time she would stand on the court during a game at BHP.
It was a moment that two weeks ago she thought would never happen. She tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee while going for a basket during a game against the Blue Flame in Pickens. It appeared her high school career was over at 992 points.
“All of my life, I have wanted to score 1,000 points,” said Thomas, who has been playing on the Bears’ varsity team since she was in eighth grade. “It was hard for me to be eight points away in a region game and not be able to score 1,000.”
Shortly after her final shot went through the hoop Friday, many of the same people who attended the postgame party gathered at mid-court as Thomas was presented four balloons with the number “1000” written across them and recognized with a big roar of applause from the home crowd. One of the people there to witness Thomas’ accomplishment was her father, John Winfield, who was filled with pride following the game.
“It was one of the biggest things that I could ever have imagined her doing,” Winfield said. “Being that not many people at BHP have ever done it, I am proud to see her do it.”
As had his daughter, Winfield thought that he would never get the opportunity to witness her accomplishment.
“I thought that everything was over in that moment when it happened,” Winfield said of the ACL tear. “But I am happy for the coach from Pickens and everyone else who made tonight happen.”
The achievement required an incredible act of sportsmanship. Bears coach Bill Batson spoke with Blue Flame coach Rikki Owens to devise a plan to allow Thomas the opportunity to score eight more points.
Owens “and I had a great conversation,” Batson said. “I think the world of her. It didn’t take long for her and I to come up with a plan, and thankfully they were gracious enough to do anything we asked and they have been a great partner in this. We are very thankful about that.”
Owens said she was happy to oblige.
“It was a no-brainer,” Owens said. “That girl has worked her tail off and she deserved her 1,000 points and she was going to get it before that injury. She earned it. She earned it.”
But it was the Pickens players, who had not won a region game before Friday night, who selflessly made sure Thomas’ 1,000th-point dream came true.
“We have prayed ever since for that child since it happened,” Owens said. “When I told our girls that BHP wanted to do something, before I could finish my sentence our girls said, ‘absolutely.’
“One of our girls wanted to lead a prayer before the game, and it took off from there. They were excited to know how we were going to work it out and do it, and they just have such good character on and off the court.”
“It means a lot to me that the Pickens coach would step up and say that the first eight points in a region basketball game that she would let me score,” she said. “I was so excited that they were going to let me score and all. I was just thinking, ‘I hope I don’t miss the layup.’”
Thomas is preparing for surgery in March and is still contemplating among several college basketball offers. But she will never forget the final night of her high school career.
“I will remember this night, my 1,000 point night” she said. “I didn’t think it would happen and with what everyone did, it just means a lot.”