By Trey Williams
The thrill of a likely victory and the agony of a certain defeat were sandwiched together in 12 crushing seconds for the Unicoi Middle School basketball boys’ team on Saturday night.
Just when it looked like the Jr. Blue Devils had overcome a relatively sluggish performance to defeat Surgoinsville in the Texas Roadhouse Holiday Classic championship game at Jonesborough Middle School on Dec. 21, Logan Johnson capped a 17-point performance with a short runner at the buzzer to give Surgoinsville a 29-28 victory in the championship.
It punctuated a wildly entertaining final 25 seconds, which began with Surgoinsville missing the front end of a one-and-one free throw while nursing a 27-25 lead. The Jr. Blue Devils got the rebound and advanced the ball to the frontcourt, where Mason Hensley found an open Sellars in the corner for what looked like the game-winning trey.
UCMS coach Jordan Simmons was left to lament the timeout he didn’t take after Sellars’ 3-pointer.
“We finally make a shot and you don’t know what to do,” Simmons said. “Do you call a timeout and try to get something set up defensively? Do you just let it play out?
“We’d done a pretty good job getting back and containing No. 1. The kid made some tough shots. At the end I think we had someone pretend to take a charge and just kind of fell down. He got by, got the little look and it went in. The kid made a play. And at this age, if kids are gonna step up and make plays like that, you tip your hat, tell them good game and go.”
A more crisp UCMS performance might have spared Simmons any tough split-second decisions in the endgame.
“The last 11 seconds didn’t define the game,” Simmons said. “We had so many turnovers in the first half and in the third quarter. And give Surgoinsville credit. I mean the kids got after it. You know, that’s really the first team we’ve had all year that just got up in us in half-court man-to-man defense and put a lot of pressure on us in the half-court. And our kids kind of panicked a little bit.”
Johnson’s 15-foot pull-up jump-shot gave Surgoinsville a 25-18 lead with 41 seconds left in the third quarter.
But Jr. Blue Devil post Caleb Peterson answered with back-to-back assisted baskets down low, including one after an impressive Jackson Simmons lob from beyond the top of the key that got UCMS with 25-22 with 3:36 remaining.
Lucas Case’s difficult mid-range bank stretched the lead back to five with 2:15 to go, but Hensley’s pull-up 15-footer got UCMS within 27-24 with 1:56 to go.
“The kids came out and battled back,” Simmons said. “We were down seven with like three or four minutes left. The kids battled back and we take the lead. And their kid just made a play.”
Peterson, the Jr. Blue Devils’ lone representative on the six-man all-tournament team, scored seven of his nine points in the second half.
Peterson had two blocked shots in the second half, and he appears to have a high ceiling on the offensive end. Unicoi County High School coach John Good, who was in attendance, appeared to like some of what he saw.
“Coach Good has just been a great get for our entire program and community,” Simmons said. “He came to me at the start of the year and he said, ‘Through October, until my practices start, I’m your assistant coach. I’ll be there at your tryouts. I’ll come to your practices. Put me in your practice plan.’
“He comes to our games. He sits on the bench with the kids. He puts his arms around them in huddles. And our kids and parents notice when he walks in the door.”
Simmons said Peterson’s made significant strides. He scored 12 points in a 38-21 quarterfinal win against Rogersville City. Simmons and promising wing Chris Chavez added eight and seven, respectively. Chavez’s effort and energy almost invariably satisfy Simmons.
“He has a motor,” Simmons said.
Peterson tallied 15 points in a 42-39 defeat of Jonesborough in the semifinals. The victory against the Tigers was an impressive performance propelled by a balanced attack. Sellars scored seven points, Chavez and Simmons each had six and Hensley and Kolby Jones scored four apiece.
Perhaps UCMS let down after eliminating the host Tigers. Certainly, the rowdy championship atmosphere appeared to hamper the Jr. Blue Devils early. Simmons detected anxiousness.
“It’s good for us to see that (atmosphere),” he said. “Hopefully we learn from it. We were on an 11-game winning streak before tonight. We started the season 0-3. We were 11-3 coming into tonight.
“Sometimes they say it’s good to get that loss out of the way before conference (games) start back,” Simmons said. “So if we are gonna drop one, you know, this is probably the one to drop. But it doesn’t make it any less gut-wrenching – when you lose on a last-second shot.”