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Devils defeat East, remain unbeaten in conference

The Unicoi County High School Blue Devil basketball team (9-5, 3-0) remained at the top of the Three Rivers Conference with a 57-49 victory over Sullivan East in Bluff City on Tuesday, Dec. 9.
The win also avenged an 82-77 loss at the hands of the Patriots from the Hardee’s Classic in November.
“I was super proud of our effort,” UCHS head coach John English said. “We took a couple of punches from them. We got down 11 and came back, got down 11 again and came back. We had a time there in third where we down by 11, but then we locked in, started getting the stops we needed and took care of the ball. Guys knocked down some big shots.”
Junior Dalton Spears was the orchestrator of a pair of the big shots, including a pair of three-pointers that helped chip away at the Patriots’ lead.
While his offensive made highlights, it was Spears’ defensive effort against Sullivan East standout point guard Gavin Grubb that proved key, English said.
“Dalton did an outstanding job on Grubb,” he added. “Those two three-pointers obviously stand out but his defense was fundamentally sound and he kept Grubb in front of him, which isn’t easy to do. Dalton was a huge spark off the bench for us.”
An offensive showcase in the first game between the rivals had the Blue Devils focusing on the defensive side of the ball this time around, Spears said.
“We just had to lock in,” he added. “We had to lock in on Grubb, on their shooters and we did that. We held them down and kept them under 50 points. That’s always a big thing, defensively. After taking that shot at the Hardee’s, it felt good to come back, in their place, and get the win.”
A pair of buckets by Clay Simpson and Zach Thelen helped the Blue Devils take their first lead of the game, 41-38, in the fourth quarter.
Senior Merrick Nicksic led the way with 19 points and sang the praises of his team after the game.
“Everyone played their hearts out tonight,” he said. “We played hard and limited the turnovers, especially in the third.”
Sophomore Dylan Putman joined Nicksic in double figures with 11 points.
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The Blue Devils opened their first of a two-game series against Cloudland and outscored the Highlanders 22-9 in the fourth quarter to pick up a 57-47 home victory on Thursday, Dec. 11.
“It was just about the same as Tuesday night,” English joked following the game.
It was an explosive effort across the board, including Thelen, who scored nine points in the second half and was a nuisance of the defensive side of the ball.
“He’s shown that over and over,” English said of Thelen. “When he wants to play, and he’s locked in mentally and physically … It is getting him there all the time, mentally and physically, that has been the challenge. He’s done that a bunch of times this season already. His second halves have been unbelievable, but we just have to get that motor going a little bit earlier.”
Nicksic scored 16 points in the win. Davis Webb scored 11 points, but his rebounding efforts aided the team, English said.
“It’s a different guy each game,” he added. “Dalton on Tuesday, Davis tonight. I thought Austin (Hendrickson) came off the bench and played extremely well on the defensive side of the ball.”
Putman added nine points while Clay Simpson tacked on six points. Trevor Hensley, Jacob Smith and Will Shelton each added two-point buckets in the win.
Preston Benfield led Cloudland with 14 points.
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On Saturday, Dec. 13, the Blue Devils saw their five-game win streak come to a close against a surging Hampton team in a 56-41 contest.
The Bulldogs opened the contest outscoring the Blue Devils 19-2 in the first quarter and held onto the momentum for the rest of the contest.
UCHS battled back, holding Hampton to five points in the second, and continued to chip away until the Bulldogs built a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Nicksic led UCHS with 13 points while Hensley added 10. Webb and Thelen added sparks in the second half for the Blue Devils.
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The Blue Devils will be off this week and will resume basketball action next week, participating in the Super 16 tournament held at Knox Bearden.