By Trey Williams
Juniors Lucas Slagle and Grant Hensley reached milestones last week, highlighting the regular-season homestretch for the Unicoi County boys basketball team.
Slagle, the Blue Devils 6-foot-5 post, scored his 1,000th career point on Tuesday after collecting his 1,000th career rebound earlier in the season. Hensley set the team’s single-season record for 3-pointers in a Senior Night win against Happy Valley on Friday and set the school’s single-season 3-pointer record in a 69-21 win at Cloudland on Monday.
But Unicoi County, which had entered the week having won four straight Upper Lakes Conference games to create an opportunity for a share of the league title, dropped its final two conference games in the Devils Den.
So Unicoi County (4-4, 15-17) ended up with the No. 3 seed for the District 1-AAA tournament. It will take on second-seeded Sullivan East (5-3, 17-6) in the district semifinals on Saturday at Volunteer.
East defeated Unicoi County 62-47 on Tuesday (Feb. 8) in Erwin, avenging a 69-56 loss to the Blue Devils on Jan. 21 in Bluff City.
With no potential of improving their seeding in their regular-season conference finale, the Blue Devils followed the loss to East by suffering a 63-62 overtime setback to Tennessee High on Thursday in the Devils Den. Without the win, the Vikings would’ve concluded their league slate winless.
Cold shooting was the biggest obstacle against Sullivan East. Unicoi County shot 31 percent from the field and 25 percent (6 of 24) from 3-point distance.
Senior Dylan Bartley, who finished the game less than 100 points behind East all-time leading scorer Gavin Grubb (2,264 points), made five of the Patriots’ seven 3-pointers en route to a game-high 26 points. Fellow senior guard Braden Standbridge added 14 points.
“They made shots and we didn’t,” Unicoi County coach Jordan Simmons said. “Their dribble penetration really gave us problems. Bartley and Standbridge combined for 40 points. Letting them get loose just put us behind the 8-ball all night.”
Hensley scored 16 points and made four 3-pointers for the Blue Devils. Junior Eli Johnson added 11 points and Slagle scored nine, giving him 1,002 for his career.
“In the end, we were able to cut it to four with 3:30 left but they ended the game on an 11-0 run,” Simmons said. “We had some late turnovers that really hurt. We got them over there and they got us here. We will play them again in the district semis. So we have to get back to it and be ready to play them (Saturday).”
Tennessee High shot better than 70 percent from 3-point range (10-for-14) in its upset win on Thursday. The final one came from 6-foot-6 junior Brandon Dufore, and it was a game-winner with 1.2 seconds left in overtime.
Dufore’s dagger deflated an impressive performance from Hensley, who scored 28 points and made 8 of 13 attempts from behind the arc.
Unicoi County had defeated the Vikings 55-43 in Viking Hall on Jan. 28.
“Once again, our opponent shot the ball really well,” Simmons said. “When a team goes 10-for-14 from three against you, it’s going to be hard to win. But we had so many chances.”
The Blue Devils missed two free throws at the end of regulation that could’ve sealed it. And they led by five points and had possession with some 30 seconds remaining in overtime.
“But we missed two front ends (free throws) and had an unforced turnover,” Simmons said. “They made two tough threes and they got us by one. We dug a hole early getting down by 13 in the first half, and our guys did a great job battling back. We put ourselves in position to win but free throws and untimely turnovers eventually cost us.”
Eli Johnson had 15 points and senior point guard Bryson Peterson had eight points and four assists. Slagle (six points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Ty Johnson (six rebounds, four assists, two steals) were also key contributors.
“Unicoi had been playing great,” Tennessee High coach Michael McMeans said. “That was a great win for us over there. With Hensley and the Johnson kid and Slagle, good lord, they’re good.
“I think Hensley hit eight threes on us. He just went off. And it wasn’t like we weren’t guarding him. It was contested stuff. He’s become a heck of a player.”
Hensley made three 3-pointers in a 51-37 defeat of Happy Valley on Friday. It gave him 95 treys on the season, a school record. Brock Thompson had set the record with 93 treys during his junior season.
“It was a great win for Senior Night,” Simmons said. “This is a special group that has done great things for our program. And it has not always been easy for them. The ones who have been here four years have played for three different head coaches, and that is not easy.
“But they are all hard workers who care about the program and they have done a great job of being leaders. Hopefully we can get them another home game or two here in a couple weeks.”
The single-season school record for 3-pointers was held by Haley Webb (100) until Hensley made six treys during a 24-point performance in the regular-season finale at Cloudland.
Peterson scored 10 points, and Ty Johnson and Eli Johnson added nine and eight, respectively.