By Trey Williams
Basketball coaches often talk about it being difficult to beat a team three times.
Twice was no walk in the park for the Unicoi County High School boys against Sullivan Central, which will be the Blue Devils opening opponent in the District 1-AA tournament.
A regional tournament berth will be at stake when fourth-seeded Unicoi (16-14) and No. 5 Central (9-21) meet Friday, Feb. 21, at 7:30 p.m. at Sullivan East.
The Devils needed overtime to defeat the Cougars, 64-57, on Feb. 11 in Erwin after squandering a 15-point lead.
“You have to be mentally tough in the postseason no matter who you play,” Unicoi County coach John Good said. “Will we be overconfident because we beat them twice already? I say no. We will compete to advance and extend our season.”
Sophomore point guard Bryson Peterson was invaluable in the win against Central on Feb. 11. He scored 18 points, including 12-for-14 free throw shooting. Foul shots have been an adventure at times for the Blue Devils, and Peterson said Good commended him prior to Unicoi’s 64-47 loss at Elizabethton the following night.
“He came up to me before the Elizabethton game,” Peterson said, “and said that he was just proud of me for stepping up there and having the guts to hit them, just being able to go up there and knock them down for us.”
Peterson’s aggression helped finish off the Cougars.
“Bryson really started attacking the basket,” Good said. “He is our best foul shooter percentage wise (77.4). He has been handling the ball well without turning it over. He has had some growing pains playing the point with no experience, but he has a huge upside.”
Peterson was especially pleased to play well on a night that assistant coach Logan Lyle’s jersey was formally retired, as were those of Amy Engle Shulman, Andy Baxter and Dustin Edwards, who were all in attendance.
“With Coach Lyle getting his jersey retired,” Peterson said, “that was something Coach Good had spoken on before the game, and that going out there and playing for him – that just kind of stuck in the back of my head. I remember watching Logan play growing up a little bit and my mom (Misty) played with Amy, and I heard a bunch about her.”
Central rallied from 15 points down and forced overtime thanks to freshman Joltin Harrison’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer. It was one of six treys for Harrison.
“When we play them Friday,” Peterson said, “we’ve got to run him off the 3-point line and make him dribble in and try and shoot a layup and score somewhere else, because he can flat-out shoot the ball.”
Unicoi’s intensity level might have dropped after building the big cushion against Central.
“We saw we were up 15 and we weren’t serious about it anymore,” Peterson said. “We just kind of stopped playing thinking that we were already gonna win. And they surprised us and came all the way back. Finally, we started getting it back going and pulled it out.”
Unicoi began a grueling five-game, six-day stretch last week with a 79-69 win at Johnson County on Monday, Feb. 10. Junior guard Brock Thompson scored 26 of his 28 points in the second half and freshman post Lucas Slagle had yet another double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds). Thompson made seven 3-pointers.
“Brock started hitting some shots and the team did a great job of getting him the ball,” Good said. “There was not a lot of space. I thought he did a good job of just catching and shooting in rhythm.”
Thompson had his teammates smiling during the hot stretch.
“It’s hard to guard him if he starts knocking down shots and seeing them go in,” Peterson said. “It’s like nobody can guard him out there; it’s just him playing by himself in the backyard.”
Robbie O’Dell scored 10 points in the loss at Elizabethton for Unicoi on Wednesday, which concluded the week with a 71-50 win against Cloudland on Friday and a 74-51 loss at Hampton on Saturday. Five days of rest should prove valuable after a grueling week.
The Devils are confident they can beat anyone. They nearly won at top-seeded Sullivan South, split with No. 2 Elizabethton and sustained two one-possession losses to third-seeded Sullivan East.
“I feel like if we play together we could beat anybody,” Peterson said. “There’s a very good chance that we could win the tournament. We’ve just got to get out there and play.”
Thompson is leading Unicoi with 15 points per game and 37 percent 3-point shooting.
Senior guard Brett Lingerfelt and freshman post Lucas Slagle are each averaging 10 points per game. Slagle is grabbing a team-high 12 rebounds per game and Lingerfelt leads the team in assists (3.6).