By Trey Williams
The Unicoi County basketball team has been without point guard Bryson Peterson since the first half of the fourth game of the season.
The Blue Devils’ backcourt, however, has remained formidable.
Grant Hensley is averaging 18.2 points per game and fellow junior Eli Johnson is scoring 16.4 points per game. And Ty Johnson, whose length and athleticism could land him at the four spot quite a bit when Peterson returns, has been doing a variety of things well during a 7-7 start to the season.
Johnson scored a team-high 19 points in a 53-47 defeat of Gate City on Saturday in the Tennessee-Virginia Shootout at Viking Hall in Bristol. Johnson was aggressively driving a day after only taking three shots in a 51-50 loss to a solid Union team, also in the Shootout in Bristol.
“Eli’s really come along and he finishes at the rim really well,” Unicoi County first-year coach Jordan Simmons said. “He and I talked (Friday) night, because he only took three shots (against Union). And for us to have a lot of success offensively, Eli has gotta take more shots than that. So I told him, ‘You’ve gotta come out and I’ve gotta get you going early in this game.’ And we ran a couple of sets for him early to try to get him some shots.
“He did a great job of attacking. When he gets in transition it’s really hard to stop him at the rim.”
Hensley and junior post Slagle scored 15 and 12 points, respectively, against Gate City. Johnson and Hensley each hit two of the Devils’ four 3-pointers. Hensley’s final trey gave Unicoi a 45-42 lead with 2:49 to go.
“Grant’s had a great year,” Simmons said. “He’s probably been the most impressive kid I’ve had since I took the job in April, you know, just the time he puts and the work.”
Hensley scored 18 and Slagle had 15 while dealing with 6-foot-6 Bradley Bunch, Virginia’s reigning Class 2A player of the year, in the loss to Union on Friday.
“Bunch is probably the best player we’ll see all year,” Simmons said.
Union coach Zack Moore was nearly as impressed with Slagle, who’s averaging 13.8 points and 11.6 rebounds. A 6-foot-5 junior, Slagle averaged a double-double each of his first two seasons.
“They’ve got a post player in Slagle that’s really good,” Moore said.
Unicoi County lost 88-86 in overtime at Hampton on Dec. 7. Of course, it was the Devils’ second game in as many days, as they were coming off a home win against David Crockett.
Eli Johnson scored 29 points against Hampton. Hensley and Slagle added 24 and 20, respectively.
Unicoi County fell to 7-7 on the season with a 73-61 loss at Crockett on Monday. It was the Devils’ third game in four days and seventh game in an 11-day span.
And the Pioneers didn’t lack intensity after getting blown out (70-49) in Erwin a week earlier. The Pioneers’ Seth Britton, a 6-foot-7 junior, made four 3-pointers in the opening 4:43 while helping Crockett open the game with a 23-9 outburst.
Crockett made eight treys in the first quarter, including three from Jacob Ayers and one from Dawson Wagner, and stretched its lead to 34-15 with 6:25 left in the first half.
“Crockett just came out on fire,” Simmons said. “They made their first six threes and we just never could recover. We knew they would come out with lots of energy after last week, and they did.
“I thought our guys never quit, though. We cut it down to nine or 10 multiple times but they always had an answer.”
Hensley (23 points) and Eli Johnson (13) scored in double figures. Slagle and Caleb Swinehart had nine apiece.
The Blue Devils are off until a visit to Happy Valley on Dec. 21.
“We have some guys who have played a ton of minutes over the past 10 or 12 days – some while battling sickness,” Simmons said. “This little break in our schedule is coming at a great time. Our guys can get their legs under them, and we can have some practice time to clean some things up.”
Crockett coach Cody Connell has seen enough of the Blue Devils.
“They’re a great basketball team,” Connell said. “Like I told my guys, ‘You just beat a very good team.’ I think anybody in that conference would compete in our conference. If you put all 10 of us together, it’s a dogfight for who’s first through 10th. Any game could be close.
“Once they get him (Peterson) back, they’re gonna be really good.”