Then in the nightcap, Johnson County pulled off a shocker.
The Cyclones got a 45-point combo from Zeke Clark and Tyler Nichols and held off the Rebels down the stretch in a 66-60 victory in the District 1-AA semifinals. A short time later, Chase Phillips scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds as Johnson County defeated the Blue Devils 66-55.
Tonight’s title game between the Cyclones (21-7) and Longhorns (14-12) will be at 8:30 p.m.
The third-place contest at 5:30 will be matchup between the two teams who shared the Three Rivers Conference title: Unicoi and South.
Cyclones’ head coach Lucas Honeycutt, who guided his team to the sectional last season in his first year, has this team in the district final for the second straight time despite losing a boatload of seniors.
“People didn’t expect us to be here, but we want it to be a program thing,” said Honeycutt. “We want this to be an expectation every year. And we want to make a run at the state.”
Clark certainly did his part, totaling 23 points, seven assists and three steals. Nichols was right there, too, with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
“In a game like this, you’ve got to make plays,” said Clark. “Sullivan South is full of players who can make the same plays, so you better work hard. Luckily things went our way.”
There were several key moments in the game for the Cyclones. One was Zeke Clark calmly dribbling the clock down and then crushing a 3-pointer with two seconds left before halftime to pull Elizabethton within three, 36-33.
Another was Clark’s trey late in the game. South’s Mickey Winkle drove home a head-of-the-key shot with 2:11 remaining to give South a 59-57. On the next possession, Clark broke loose for a 3-ball answer to put Elizabethton back in front.
“They had been going under screens, and I knew I was going to fire it the next time they did it,” said Clark. “It just happened again at that point.”
That shot put Elizabethton ahead for good, although there were some tough moments at the free throw line. The Cyclones made 6 of 8 free throws in the final 59.6 seconds to secure the win.
Nichols made five of those tosses, including a couple of free throw line trips after a couple of tough defensive rebounds.
“I said to myself I’m coming out with it because I wanted to get back to the free throw line,” said Nichols.
South started the game in a passing frenzy. Post Christian Comsa racked up five first-quarter assists. He finished with 15 points and five assists.
Dalton Light totaled 12 points while Will Blair had 10 points and seven rebounds.
Johnson County 66, Unicoi County 55
It was a game to remember for Phillips, but he deflected praise to his teammates.
“We just kept attacking,” said Phillips. “Brandon Vannoy came off the bench and played fantastic. And Brian Dempsey played his heart out until he fouled out.”
Unicoi was in control of the game, leading 39-25. But they lost Connor Simpson to an ankle injury and postmate Nic Chambers got in foul trouble.
Johnson County closed the third quarter with a 14-4 run to move within four points going into the fourth.
Then they slapped Unicoi with a high-energy fast-breaking 13-2 run to start the fourth quarter and never relinquished the lead.
Head coach Austin Atwood said it was a breakthrough win.
“We’ve been close all year,” said Atwood. “I’ve been telling our guys we’re that close from being a real good team. Tonight we got there.”
J.R. Speed totaled 17 points for the Longhorns while Dempsey and Vannoy added 11 apiece.
Atwood said the win was significant not only for reaching the title game, but also for earning home-court advantage for Saturday’s region quarterfinal contest.
“The biggest thing was getting that region game back in Mountain City,” said Atwood.
Lucas Hensley totaled 14 points and seven rebounds for the Blue Devils. Keith Arrowood chipped in with 12.
“We’ve got some effort things we have to fix,” said Unicoi head coach John English. “I would think at this time of year we wouldn’t have to talk about that, but I don’t think we got one 50-50 ball. They got them all.”