Hilary James was the two-time Mountain Valley Conference player of the year for South Salem. (Photo by Jon Olson)
Hilary James was the two-time Mountain Valley Conference player of the year for South Salem. (Photo by Jon Olson)

It was the high point of Hilary James' high school basketball career at South Salem.

The 5-foot-5 junior point guard dazzled in her 6A tournament debut in March, making six three-pointers and scoring 35 points to lead the Saxons past McMinnville in a quarterfinal.

What she couldn't have known at the time was the significance of the moment.

“Pretty crazy to think now that I didn't even know I was playing in my last high school game,” said James, the two-time Mountain Valley Conference player of the year.

The coronavirus crisis shut down the tournament, and now, with the 2020-21 season in limbo, James has opted to forgo her senior year. She has graduated early and plans to leave late next month to play for Lipscomb University, a Division I program in Nashville, Tenn.

“With everything that was going on, it didn't really look like we were going to have a season,” James said. “I was given an opportunity to go early, and to redshirt, and to work out with the team.

“I felt like that was the next step. If South Salem does end up having a season, I'm going to support from afar. I'll be bummed, but I just felt like it was my time to move on and start working toward some new goals.”

A three-year starter, James averaged 17.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.8 steals as a junior. Saxons coach Adrian Lewis said that losing James is a blow to the team, but he understands given the uncertainty about the high school season.

“I fully support the decision because at least she'll be able to play,” Lewis said. “She'll get to play against D-I talent. I'm guessing they want to get her there early because I think she's going to be a big part of what they're going to do in the future.”

With her ability to score and create for teammates, James led South Salem to back-to-back Mountain Valley titles as a sophomore and junior. The Saxons went 27-1 in conference play the last two seasons.

“She doesn't have any flaws in her game,” Lewis said. “If she was 6-foot, she would probably be one of the top recruits in the country. I really think that.”

College interest in James began to heat up in the past year. Lewis said he heard from more than 15 Division I programs, with Central Washington and Grand Canyon among those showing the most interest.

“Toward the end of the season, more colleges started noticing,” Lewis said. “Her heart was really set on going Division I.”

Ultimately, James said she decided to “stick to my gut” and choose Lipscomb.

“There could've been the potential for more, but I knew I found the place,” James said. “If Lipscomb wasn't Division I, I still think I would've chosen them. They were the most passionate about me.

“I always wanted to go to a private Christian school. It was the Lord, and He really opened that up. I'm super excited and blessed. They're great people and I know I'm going to be taken care of. And I'm going to be pushed. I'm ready to play at the next level.”

James is the middle of seven siblings. She grew up in Salem and her family moved from the Sprague enrollment area to South Salem's before her freshman year.

She arrived at South Salem following a four-year run for the Saxons that included 104 wins and 6A titles in 2015 and 2016. She took over point guard duties for Evina Westbrook, winner of the Morgan Wootten and USA Today national player of the year awards in 2017.

With James leading the way, South Salem made steady progress under Lewis -- who replaced Nick McWilliams as coach in 2017-18 -- and got back to the Chiles Center last season.

“We always had that goal that we wanted to make it to the state tournament,” James said. “I think that all of us had a chip on our shoulder. But we didn't want to just make it, we wanted to keep going after that. Making it there, our confidence just grew. It just exploded.”

Lewis said that James “flew under the radar” for much of her high school career, but began to get the attention she deserved late last season, especially after the breakout performance at the state tournament.

“I think she's always trying to prove herself, that she should be one of the top players in the state of Oregon,” Lewis said. “She's not a player that would say it out loud. It was good to see that people were starting to recognize her special abilities.

Lewis said that James should be considered among the outstanding players ever to play for South Salem, along with Westbrook, Katie McWilliams and Jordan Woodvine.

"I know Evina and Katie always thought she was a special player," Lewis said. "Every time I saw Evina, she was like, 'That Hilary James is going to be something special.'”

James more than lived up to those expectations, and now she will travel 2,300 miles to the east for her next challenge.

“This is the end of this chapter, but I'm not done with basketball,” she said. “It's just going to be a new experience, and I'm super excited for it.”