By Trey Williams
The Unicoi County High School boys basketball team’s future prolonged its present in the District 1-AA tournament on Friday, Feb. 21, at Sullivan East.
Freshman 6-foot-4 post Lucas Slagle piled up 25 points and 15 rebounds in a 65-59 win against Sullivan Central which secured the Blue Devils a regional berth. A 73-52 loss to top-seeded Sullivan South on Saturday, Feb. 22, will force UCHS to travel for its regional opener on Saturday, Feb. 29, and the Blue Devils were scheduled to play Sullivan East in the district consolation game on Tuesday, Feb. 25, after The Erwin Record’s press deadline for this issue.
Unicoi County had to beat Central for a third straight time to clinch the regional berth, and it didn’t come easily. Slagle’s jump-hook was good for a 55-53 lead with 5:14 remaining and his pair of free throws gave the Devils a 59-57 lead with 4:14 left. He gave them the lead for good (61-59) by making both ends of a one-and-one with 1:08 to go.
“It was a great experience to contribute to a win like that, especially watching Unicoi basketball all my life,” Slagle said. “But I was just a piece of that win. All of our guys stepped up and really played well when it mattered.”
Junior guard Brock Thompson scored the last of his 14 points by making two foul shots to stretch the lead to 63-59 with 29 seconds left and Caleb Adkins’ two foul shots concluded the scoring with 11 seconds remaining.
UCHS has struggled at the foul line this season, but went 18-for-24 against the Cougars when it mattered most, including the 6-for-6 stretch in the final 68 seconds. Slagle was 7-for-8.
“I thought we just kept throwing it inside to the freshman,” Unicoi first-year coach John Good said. “I mean he got 25 and (15 rebounds). I don’t know if there’s another freshman in the area that rebounds like he does, but I haven’t seen him.
“He’s really got a nice touch and he can rebound with anybody. Offensively, he doesn’t have a clue (how good he could be). If he was as aggressive offensively as he is on rebounding – I mean hopefully his junior year we’ll just have to tell him, say, ‘Hey, we’ll see you on Tuesdays and Fridays. You can’t practice with us.’ I think that’s how strong he’ll be if it ever clicks.”
Sophomore guard Bryson Peterson and senior post Nick Lynch scored seven points apiece against the Cougars.
Sullivan South made Slagle its point of emphasis in the semifinals on Saturday. Senior Camden Necessary, a 6-foot-3 offensive lineman that’ll play college football, was willing to devote five fouls to slowing Slagle.
“That (Slagle) kid’s gonna be, gosh, he’s got a chance to be the best player in this area – in a very short amount of time, I think,” South coach Michael McMeans said. “He has great post moves. We sat up here and watched him last night (against Sullivan Central) and we talked about it in shoot-around this morning. We just weren’t gonna let him get on the block with his back to the basket, because he’s got too many good moves and he gets up there too high.”
The Blue Devils shot approximately 30 percent from the field against South.
“You can’t beat them if you don’t make shots,” Good said. “We basically no-showed on offense. We couldn’t score. I thought defensively we played pretty well.”
South got 22 points from senior point guard Ben Diamond and senior backcourt mate Cole Layne added 15.
“Coach McMeans does a great job,” Good said. “And when you’ve got guards that can produce – they can handle it, they don’t get rattled, they make shots.”
“Scoring has been our Achilles Heel. … I thought we were solid defensively. I thought it was like a 30-point game and it was just 11. But we could never hit a shot.”
Thompson scored 10 points against South and fellow junior guard Robbie O’Dell hit two 3-pointers and was 3-for-3 at the foul line for nine points.
Good saw progress in a key spot during the district. The Devils went 18-for-24 at the foul line in the win against Central. Free throws have cost Unicoi a number of wins this season.
“It was great (against Central),” Good said. “We’ve been shooting more and more every practice. And the kids – they needle each other, but it’s good they work on it. It matters to them.”