Jimmy Duncan was an assistant coach sitting on the Great Falls basketball bench during a game when he heard a fan shout at head coach John Smith, “you don’t know what you’re doing!”
Smith coached 47 years and won 943 games and eight state titles. From 2008 to 2012, Great Falls lost seven games total. Smith’s Red Devils teams finished state runners-up 11 additional times and in one 25-year stretch, reached the state finals 17 times. He stepped aside in 2016 and Duncan, a York County native who previously coached the Red Devils’ girls team, took over.
If someone sitting in the stands could yell that at Smith, well, Duncan had no chance. Duncan remembers Smith’s response when he asked him about the hometown hecklers.
“No matter how much you win, how much you win by, there’s gonna be people that think they know better than you in the stands,” said Duncan. “I’ve always held onto that.”
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That thought offered Duncan, who turned 33 years old this month, some perspective as he set about replacing a legend. It’s highly unrealistic to expect him to ever match Smith’s achievements. But after a few sub-par (for Great Falls) seasons, the Red Devils are back where they expect to be: on top of the state’s 1A state rankings.
The fans are enjoying it too, packing the school’s small gym just like they did when Smith was the coach, and just like they would regardless of who leads their town’s flagship sports program. And they’ve not had much reason to holler at the coach yet this year.
“I think our fans give us plus-10 just being here,” Duncan said. “They’re incredible.”
Great Falls’ 86-46 blowout of Camden Military Academy on Jan. 29 was indicative of the way the Red Devils are playing at the moment. The team’s star player, junior Kelton Talford, hammered home about a dozen dunks, including one that teammate RonJ Stevenson lobbed off the backboard. Great Falls (14-4, 3-0 Region 2-A) hit 13 3-pointers, including three in about a one-minute stretch from guard Johnathan Trent, that got the crowd on its feet despite a 40-point blowout.
“Felt good, felt good,” said Trent, smiling. “Once I hit one, it’s on.”
Three of Great Falls’ four losses came against out of state competition during a holiday tournament in Kentucky, and the fourth was against Lewisville, at the Hornets’ Spectrum Center in early January.
The Red Devils, who still haven’t lost inside South Carolina’s borders, won their first round of Region 2-A games by an average of 35 points, and they’re missing the competitive league games against Lewisville, which moved up to 2A this school year. Great Falls’ loss to the Lions in uptown Charlotte was the last game during which the Red Devils’ starters played in the fourth quarter.
Great Falls missed the playoffs in Smith’s final season but has steadily rebuilt. The Red Devils won 11 games in Duncan’s first season with a bunch of ninth and 10th graders, then won 18 games last season before falling to Lewisville in the state playoffs’ third round in a sold-out game at South Pointe. Duncan thought his team wore down late in the season-ending loss to the Lions, and successfully tried to increase the Red Devils’ depth this season. They’re playing two distinct units of five during games, and have played as many as 13 different kids in games this season with no major drop-off in production.
“It’s been fast tempo for us, real fun because we just push the ball and get tons of layups and points,” said Talford.
This year’s team will return nine players next season, including the 6-foot-6 Talford. He’s playing less than 20 minutes per game, but still averaging over 20 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks. Talford has offers from Maryland-Eastern Shore and Division II Fairmont State, and Duncan said he fields calls from a group of about 10 schools that are keeping tabs on Talford’s development.
Fans were loving Talford’s dunk fest Tuesday night. Perhaps as a thank you for the unwavering community support, Duncan’s team recently helped a local church dole out food to needy families.
“We do a lot for the community and people do a lot for us,” said Trent. “It’s, like, connected.”
Duncan may always be unfairly compared to Smith and his accomplishments. The Red Devils’ legendary former coach literally looms over any team that plays in the school’s gym, standing in photos of each of the state title teams positioned on the wall behind each basket. But other than different coaches, things feel normal in Great Falls’ basketball gym right now.
As Smith sat at the end of Great Falls’ bench during a summer scrimmage back in 2016, he said “We didn’t make the playoffs last year. And in two years he’s gonna have a good team. Without our normal success the last three years and the talent in the eighth and ninth grade coming, now was the time.”
Coach Smith, right as always.