From Staff Reports
The Unicoi County High School boys basketball team faced elimination from the postseason twice last week – and twice they survived.
“I thought we did a good job responding,” head coach Michael Smith said. “No one expected us to win those games. We told our players to play free and without pressure and that’s what they did.”
As the seventh-place team in the Three Rivers Conference, the Blue Devils (9-22) had to face Happy Valley (7-20), the sixth-place team, in a play-in game for the District 1-AA tournament at Happy Valley on Tuesday, Feb. 13.
The Blue Devils found themselves tied, 24-24, with the Warriors going into the fourth quarter in what had been a back-and-forth game.
“I thought both teams were doing a good job defensively in the first three quarters,” Smith said. “We know each other having played so much. You often see low scoring games in the tournament because of that.”
Following a jumper by Unicoi County’s Caleb Adkins, the Warriors took a brief lead, 27-26, on a three-pointer. Then, Brock Thompson took over the game for the Blue Devils. The sophomore gave UCHS the lead again with a bucket, then drained back-to-back three-pointers for a 34-27 advantage.
“Brock decided we weren’t going to lose and he led us to the win,” Smith said.
The Warriors came up empty on their next possession, then Gavin Casey scored for the Blue Devils. Thompson then stole the ensuing inbounds pass by Happy Valley and scored again to give UCHS a commanding 38-27 lead.
“That steal was a huge play,” Smith said. “Scoring four quick points like that really gave us momentum. It lifted us and deflated them.”
Although the Warriors kept fighting to get back in the game, the Blue Devils held on for a 49-41 win.
“I am proud of all our guys for playing hard in an elimination game,” Smith said.
Thompson scored 20 points (2 three-pointers), 15 of which came in the fourth quarter, to go with 5 rebounds and 3 assists in the win. Austin O’Dell scored 9 and had 13 rebounds. Casey scored 8 and had 5 rebounds. Brett Lingerfelt scored 5 (1 three-pointer) and had 3 steals. Danny Lowery scored 4 and had 4 rebounds. Adkins scored 2 and had 4 rebounds. Robbie O’Dell scored 1.
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The victory over Happy Valley set the Blue Devils up to face Sullivan East (17-13), the number three seed in the tournament, on Friday, Feb. 15, at Happy Valley. It was another win-or-go-home game.
Facing a team that had defeated them twice this season, Smith’s team was down 6-0, but decided they weren’t ready to go home just yet.
“We fought back to take a 9-8 lead and we never trailed again,” Smith said.
The Blue Devils took a 16-11 lead at the end of the first quarter and held a 33-27 lead at the half.
“We did a really good job defensively taking them out of what they wanted to do,” Smith said. “We played zone, instead of playing man like we did in our two previous games against them. When we went to our 2-2-1 zone they had some quick turnovers.”
In the third quarter, a basket by Casey and a three-pointer by Thompson gave UCHS a 38-27 lead. The Patriots managed to cut that lead to 6 points, 43-37, before the Blue Devils closed the quarter on an 11-2 run, including a three-pointer at the buzzer by Thompson.
“We answered their runs all night and were able to hold onto the lead,” Smith said. “Brock’s three-pointer was a huge shot. It really gave us momentum.
The teams played almost even basketball in the fourth quarter and UCHS won the game, 70-53.
Thompson scored 29 (5 three-pointers) and had 6 rebounds and 3 assists in the win. Lingerfelt scored 14 (1 three-pointer) and had 3 assists and 3 rebounds in the game. Lowery had a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Casey scored 9 and had 4 assists and 3 rebounds. Ty Thelen (1 three-pointer) scored 3. Austin O’Dell scored 2 and had 8 rebounds. Adkins scored 2 and had 5 rebounds in the victory.
Not only did the win over East keep their season alive and advance them to the District 1-AA semifinals, it also gave the Blue Devils a berth in the Region 1-AA tournament.
“Being 7-21 at the end of the regular season, getting to the region looked bleak,” Smith said. “But, we are playing the best we have played all season. Playing the way we are right now is what you want. We are playing our best basketball at the right time.”
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Awaiting the Blue Devils in the semifinals was Elizabethton, the tournament’s second seed. It was obvious in the first half that the Blue Devils had mostly run out of gas.
The Cyclones (21-6) raced out to an 18-10 lead after the first quarter and held a 34-26 lead at halftime.
“They did a great job defensively,” Smith said. “They made things hard for us. We did a good job of fighting back and keeping ourselves within striking distance. We were tired. We had done a lot to get to that game. Elizabethton was fresh and they are athletic.”
The Blue Devils cut the lead to 9 points in the fourth quarter, but the Cyclones were able to stall any chances of a comeback as they won the game, 55-38.
Casey scored 11 points and had 3 rebounds in the loss. Lowery had 9 points and 10 rebounds. Lingerfelt scored 6 (2 three-pointers) and had 3 rebounds. Thompson scored 5 (1 three-pointer). Thelen scored 3 (1 three-pointer). Adkins scored 3 (1 three-pointer) and had 3 rebounds. Phonex Holt scored 1.
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The loss to Elizabethton in the semifinals sent the Blue Devils to the consolation game where they faced the Johnson County Longhorns, the tournament’s top seed, on Tuesday, Feb. 20, after The Erwin Record’s press deadline. The Longhorns (23-5) were upset by Sullivan South (20-11) in the district semifinal. Elizabethton and South played for the district crown on Tuesday.
Win or lose to Johnson County, the Blue Devils will travel to either Chuckey-Doak or Greeneville to open the Region 1-AA tournament on Saturday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. A loss on Saturday will end the season for UCHS. With a win on Saturday, the Blue Devils will continue region play on Tuesday at Happy Valley.