By Trey Williams
The 31st annual Hardee’s Classic basketball tournament was there to be had for Unicoi County.
But the Blue Devils did bounce back from a frustrating 47-46 quarterfinal loss to eventual champion South Greene to record double-digit victories against Cocke County (64-43) and Sullivan South (57-47) en route to fifth place.
Robbie O’Dell scored 48 points and made 14 shots from 3-point range during the tournament at David Crockett. He’s averaging 14.7 points and shooting 44.2 percent (23-52) from behind the arc during the Blue Devils’ 4-2 start.
“Robbie’s shooting lights-out,” Unicoi County second-year coach John Good said. “He’s shooting very confidently.”
The all-tournament team is limited to the top four finishers. Otherwise, O’Dell would’ve surely been on it.
“I thought Robbie played really well,” Good said. “He had all-tournament stats.”
Free throws cost the Blue Devils in the loss to South Greene.
Bryson Peterson’s basket gave Unicoi a 41-34 lead with 6:14 remaining. But the Devils missed 4 of 7 foul shots in the final 5:40, including the front end of a one-and-one.
Still, the Rebels needed a three-point play from Ty Bailey with 20 seconds left and two free throws from Bailey with eight seconds left to eke out the victory. Peterson made two free throws with 12.9 seconds left to give Unicoi a 46-45 lead.
“We had a chance,” Good said. “But shoot, if you can’t hit free throws you can’t win. You’re just gonna prolong death. We have shot ’em better the last two games.”
The Blue Devils are just under 61 percent (60-99) at the foul line for the season. Good said they were slightly better than that last year.
“If we’d shot 70 percent from the free throw line we’d won 10 more games last year,” Good said, “and we’d be undefeated right now.”
Peterson scored 10 points and Grant Hensley had eight in the win against South. Tyler Clouse, Hensley and Eli Johnson scored nine apiece in the defeat of Cocke County, and Johnson had a team-high 15 points, including three 3-pointers, against South Greene.
Good said the Blue Devils players are adjusting to life without last year’s leading scorer, Brock Thompson, who isn’t playing his senior season. Good said most of the players are accustomed to watching Thompson take the big shots.
“Now somebody else has to be the guy,” Good said. “We’ve got players that are learning they have to take bigger shots and play more meaningful minutes. They’re fun to coach. They do everything you ask ‘em to do – except hit free throws or layups.
“They work hard every day and they’re learning their roles and they’re playing together and they’re playing unselfishly. That’s all you can ask for.”
Defense has been a constant. The Blue Devils have held opponents to 48 or fewer points in five of six games.
“I told ‘em, for the most part we’re gonna be in every game because we play really good defense,” Good said. “If you’re not a shot-blocker, let’s not try to block shots. Let’s just guard the ball. And if somebody shoots in our face, just put a hand up; don’t try to jump. So we’re limiting our fouls and we’re guarding the basketball.”
And the Devils do have a shot-blocker in sophomore Lucas Slagle, who is averaging 2.7 blocks, 13.8 rebounds and 6.0 points. Point guard Ty Johnson leads the team in steals (11) and has eight blocked shots. Hensley has a team-high eight deflections.
Hensley is second on the team with 7.7 points per game. He’s shooting 40 percent (10-25) from 3-point range.
Peterson and Ty Johnson each have 20 assists.
Good was impressed with how David Crockett ran the Hardee’s Classic, particularly during a pandemic, thanks to the likes of athletic director Josh Kite, coaches Cody Connell and Thomas Gouge and energetic staffer Chris Kudera.
“The tournament was really good,” Good said. “I think Josh and Cody and Thomas did a great job with the way they ran everything. I thought it was first-class, especially considering all the hoops they had to jump through.”
Unicoi County was scheduled to host Cloudland on Tuesday and is scheduled to open Three Rivers Conference play at home on Friday, Dec. 4, against Happy Valley.