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Devils bounce back with win over South

The 25th Annual Hardee’s Classic was a growing experience for the Unicoi High School Blue Devil basketball team.
After dropping close contests to Morristown East and Sullivan East in the first two games of the tournament, the Blue Devils (5-4) ended with a 61-57 victory over Sullivan South – the team picked to finish at the top of the Three Rivers Conference this season – on Saturday, Nov. 29, at David Crockett.
“It was a very important win,” Blue Devil senior post Will Shelton said. “Any time you can beat the preseason pick to win the conference, it’s important. It’s just good to get the bad taste out of our mouths from the past two games and move on.”
With a revamped lineup and underclassmen finding their roles, the win was a good way to end the tournament run, UCHS head coach John English said.
“We’re disappointed about being unable to contend for the title,” he added, “and dropping two here. But like I said yesterday, we keep seeing growth, we keep seeing progress and today was a big step for us to close out a win like that.
“South is a championship contender in our league and coming in here and playing with them was big.”
The Blue Devils were able to keep the Rebels post players, Will Blair and Christian Comsa, in check during the night, English said.
“Comsa and Blair are terrific athletes,” Shelton, one of the posts in on the Blue Devil defense, said. “We had to use our whole team and made it a point to box them out. We knew if we could win the rebounds, or keep it close, we could win the game”
Shelton, senior Davis Webb, sophomore Jacob Smith and freshman Clay Simpson all worked down low, but a presence from Zach Thelen (11 points) on both sides of the court helped pave the way, English said.
“I thought Zach played like a leader tonight,” English added. “He was huge for us. He was committed to doing things on both sides of the court to get us the win.”
Outside shooting also aided the Blue Devils with freshman point guard Trevor Hensley leading the way with 15 points. Two of Hensley’s three shots from behind the arc helped the Blue Devils extend their 29-28 lead coming out of halftime to 36-28 early in the third period.
“He came out in the third and knocked down a couple of threes to give us space,” English said. “We needed it. He’s a freshman, Clay’s a freshman, Dylan Putman and Jacob (Smith) are sophomores … We’ve got a good mix of youth and veteran leadership and we’re trying to put those pieces together.”
South aimed to make it interesting late in the third period but a 5-0 run by Webb helped extended the Blue Devil lead to 49-37.
Nine Blue Devils scored during the game, including a pair of three-pointers midway through the contest from junior guard Dalton Spears.
With a team growing and coming together, it couldn’t be a better time, Thelen said.
“I think we have good team chemistry,” he added. “We play well together and always find a way to find each other open.”
And the team chemistry has the Blue Devils aiming to shake off the preseason pick of them finishing either fourth or fifth in the league, Shelton said.
“We like to live by the motto: We don’t rebuild, we just reload,” he added.
Thelen said the team is taking those picks a little personal and aiming to use it as motivation as the season progresses.
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In Friday’s contest, the Blue Devils roared back in the fourth quarter with a rally, but were unable to break away from Sullivan East in an 82-77 loss.
A 16-27 performance at the charity stripe stymied any chance for a victory.
Merrick Nicksic and Putman dropped 21 each in the contest. Hensley added 11 and Thelen tacked on 10.
UCHS opened the tourney action on Nov. 25 with a loss to Class AAA team Morristown East, 67-60.
Hensley led the way with 18 points for the Blue Devils while Webb tacked on 15 points.
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The Blue Devils opened conference action on Tuesday, Dec. 2, at the Devils Den against Happy Valley after The Erwin Record’s press deadline.
UCHS will travel to Kingsport to face Sullivan North on Friday, Dec. 5. Blue Devil junior varsity action begins at 5 p.m. while the varsity is scheduled to play at 8 p.m.