How Weddington’s Bennett Rutherford transformed himself into one of Warriors’ all-time bests
by Aaron Garcia
Bennett Rutherford’s present is pretty darned nice. This week alone, the Weddington High senior boys basketball player has led the Warriors to a first-round win over Porter Ridge in the Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference tournament and eclipsed the school’s all-time scoring record of 1,257 points, set in 2008 by Corey Rase.
This season, Rutherford has helped the Warriors to a 15-9 record and averaged 17.5 points, three assists and 6.5 rebounds per game.
But as Rutherford approached the school’s scoring standard, Weddington coach Gary Ellington couldn’t help but think about Rutherford’s past, specifically, a game against Forest Hills in the CMC-Union Holiday Classic during Rutherford’s freshman year.
The score was tied with 13 seconds to go, and starting Warrior point guard Kyle Smith was on the bench in foul trouble.
Enter Rutherford, a 6-foot freshman with a buzz cut, arms like threads and a look that came straight from the set of the movie “Hoosiers.”
But Rutherford’s road to glory didn’t start that day with a game-winning shot or a slick pass to a cutting teammate for a game-deciding score. Instead, Forest Hills point guard Dre Huntley stole the ball and won the game at the buzzer with a layup.
“I took that pretty hard,” Rutherford recalled.
But Ellington approached the heartbroken youngster in the locker room after the game.
“Do you know why I gave you the ball at the end of the game?” Ellington asked.
“No,” Rutherford said.
“Because I believe in you,” Ellington responded. “I believe you can be one of the best players that have played here.”
Years after that moment, Ellington says this: “He’s absolutely lived up to that.”
Early on, Rutherford’s place atop the Warriors’ record books hardly seemed predestined. Rutherford split his free time between basketball, football and baseball, and tended to gravitate toward the spotlight positions. As a pitcher, his Little League team won a state title when he was 9 years old. He didn’t have the strongest arm, “but I had a nice knuckle-curve,” he said.
By the time he got to middle school, he realized he probably wasn’t big enough for football and didn’t have a real passion for baseball. Around the same time, he started to watch Weddington High basketball games.
“I was like, ‘This is definitely what I want to do. This looks really fun,’” Rutherford said.
So he quit the other sports and worked on basketball. He said he developed a pretty steady shot by the end of middle school, which carried over into a successful run in the Warriors’ team camps during the summer before his freshman year, albeit with one of the JV teams. But the shot was so consistent that he eventually got his foot in the door with the varsity team and began to earn heavy minutes.
Which, of course, led to that fateful night against Forest Hills, and, more important, Ellington’s words of encouragement.
“That has stuck with me throughout my four years, that my coach was behind me,” Rutherford said. “That gave me some confidence, definitely.”
With his shooting range, Rutherford’s place on the varsity team seemed solid. Every team needs a shooter, but Rutherford knew he’d need to become more of a well-rounded player if he wanted to truly carve out his spot on the roster. After all, spot-up shooters with little else in their arsenal are easy enough to defend.
“It wasn’t really a choice – it was more of a responsibility I put upon myself,” he said.
Around the same time, he began to grow (he currently stands 6 foot 2) and added bulk to his once-sinewy frame. Rutherford supplemented nature’s work with some of his own; he embarked on a daily routine of weight lifting and ball-handling drills at home in the driveway. He’d even videotape his drills to make sure he was improving.
“You’ve got to work on your weaknesses, not your strengths,” Rutherford said. “It’s easy to go to the Y(MCA) and jack up 30 3(-pointers), but it’s hard to really get in the weight room and really work on your ball-handling skills and your touch around the rim.”
The fruits of his labor began to bloom during his sophomore year, when he shouldered the starting load at guard. Suddenly, he was better off the dribble and began creating his own shots in the lane. That season, he averaged 13 points per game, tied for second-best on the team, while also jumping his assists totals from nine as a freshman to 72. Last year, as a junior, he upped his average to a team-leading 16.2 points per game, highlighted by a 31-point outburst against Anson. He also began to help inside and collected 129 rebounds.
And it seems he’s saved his best for last. In the second quarter of the Warriors’ game against Porter Ridge on Feb. 13, Rutherford sank a 3-pointer to place himself atop the program’s all-time scoring list.
“To walk out of here with the all-time scoring record is a pretty amazing story I can tell forever,” said Rutherford. “I’m blessed to have this opportunity. It’s really a dream come true. My story was pretty well-written.”
According to Ellington, Rutherford’s story is more of an autobiography, as the senior has transformed himself into the physically strongest member of the team – and, according to the coach, one of the strongest athletes in the school – with the kind the steady demeanor a coach wants in his senior leader, especially as the team embarks on what he hopes is a lengthy playoff run.
And better yet, Ellington said, Rutherford has earned his success the hard way.
“Every single year, he’s gotten 100 percent better than he was the year before,” said Ellington. “Most guys don’t do that.”
Ellington said he saw that potential in Rutherford as the then-freshman sat crestfallen in the locker room after that Forest Hills loss three years ago.
“I can’t really explain it; I’ve always just had a feeling with Bennett that he was capable of doing something special,” said Ellington. “I just always thought he was a guy you could build around. I’ve just always felt comfortable putting the ball in his hands, even back then as a freshman.
“It’s paid off because he’s responded ever since then.”