By Trey Williams
Short-handed Unicoi County’s boys basketball team was still a tall task for Sullivan Central. Lucas Slagle, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, tallied 21 points and 20 rebounds and the Blue Devils secured a regional berth with a District 1-AA tournament victory Thursday in the Devils Den.
The Blue Devils were playing without guards Grant Hensley and Eli Johnson due to potential COVID-19 exposure. Hensley returned Saturday in an 83-76 semifinal loss at top-seeded Sullivan East. Johnson could return for the regional opener on Saturday, if not for Tuesday’s district consolation game at Sullivan South.
Slagle was seemingly unstoppable much of the night in what turned out to be the last game for the 53-year-old Sullivan Central program. His top priority was making sure his sidelined teammates didn’t have to helplessly watch their season end.
“I’m just glad that we get to go on and that our guys that are quarantined might have another chance to play,” Slagle said. “That’s really what we were fighting for tonight. … Grant and Eli are huge parts of our team. We were gonna do everything we can to get them another shot at playing.” Slagle hit 6 of 7 free throws and made his lone 3-point attempt. He was 3-for-4 from behind the arc in his last two games against Central, which included a 70-56 loss on Central on Feb. 9.
“He can do that (21-20) every night,” Unicoi County coach John Good said. “And the rebounding is crazy, because he’ll get 20 and you’ll be like, ‘He could’ve got 25.’ … And I’ve said that since he started playing. “He goes and gets ’em, and he was able to finish and everything tonight. It makes our offense run a lot smoother when he’s able to finish, because it opens up the other guys for driving lanes and wide-open shots.”
Slagle assisted a Robbie O’Dell 3-pointer which gave Unicoi its first double-digit lead (27-17) with 3:48 left in the first half. It was one of two treys from O’Dell. Mason Barcel, playing a more significant role due to attrition, also hit two 3-pointers and Slagle and Tyler Clouse each made one.
“Tyler Clouse and Mason Barcel stepped up and hit big threes,” Good said. “They stepped up and hit big shots at the end. (Clouse, Barcel) and Robbie are three guys that didn’t want their season to end, and they played that way.”
Junior point guard Bryson Peterson scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. O’Dell added 14, while lead guard Ty Johnson and Barcel scored 11 and eight, respectively. Slagle and O’Dell scored 16 points apiece in the loss at East on Saturday. Peterson added 15, including a flurry of impressive driving baskets while scoring nine points during a 19-11 run that tied the score at 26 with 7:05 left in the first half.
Peterson has become a more consistent scoring threat in the second half of the season. “I think he’s seen a few shots go in in a game now,” Slagle said, “and I think it’s great to have him as another weapon.”
Peterson effectively utilizes high ball-screens from Slagle.
“He’s a great driver,” Sullivan East coach Dillon Faver said. “He’s a great basketball player. So we’ve gotta keep him out of the paint.”
The Blue Devils, who got 10 points from Hensley, cut a 63-45 deficit to 77-72 on a pair of Hensley free throws with 1:10 remaining, and they had the ball with a chance to make it a one-possession game when they committed one of 20-plus turnovers with 38 seconds remaining.
“I don’t question our kids’ effort,” Good said. “I thought our effort was great. I thought our execution was lacking. And again, 20-plus turnovers – you’re not gonna beat the Sisters of the Poor turning it over that many times.”
Sullivan East, which hit its first six 3-point attempts and finished with 28 points, got 28 points from junior guard Dylan Bartley.
After Tuesday’s consolation game at South (11-11), Unicoi County (16-13) will visit either Greeneville or Grainger in a Region 1-AA quarterfinal.