Despite a valiant rally by Elizabethton, the Longhorns captured the District 1-AA basketball championship with a defensive-minded 49-41 victory on Tuesday night at Bayless Gym.
“We just sat in that hard aggressive zone, and if they came through the paint they were going to pay for it,” said Longhorns' head coach Austin Atwood. “Luckily we didn't get in foul trouble. I've had tough teams before, but this team is smart and tough.”
It was the first district title for Johnson County (15-12) since the 1983-84 state tournament team. For a video comment on what Atwood said the title means to his team and program, follow Douglas Fritz on Twitter @FritzBlitzzz.
Quite simply summing it up, Longhorns' standout guard Chase Phillips said winning the district title was “a big thing.”
“Now we can go into the regionals with momentum,” said Phillips, who was chosen as the tournament's most valuable player.
The Longhorns will play host for a Region 1-AA quarterfinal contest Saturday.
Elizabethton fell to 21-8 and will also play at home Saturday. The District 2 tournament wraps up tonight in Greeneville.
In the third-place game in District 1-AA, Unicoi County handled Sullivan South 65-52. Both the Blue Devils and Rebels will travel Saturday.
How effective was Johnson County's defense? Except for a couple of first-quarter buckets from Tyler Nichols, the Cyclones almost never got a good look at the basket.
“We just knew who their players were,” said Phillips, who led the Longhorns with 15 points and 13 rebounds. “We were trying to get their best players to take bad shots.
“We knew coming in it would be tough. We knew they wouldn't give to us. We had to take it.”
It was 12-9 early in the second quarter, and then Johnson County went on a 15-3 run to close the half. Those three points for the Cyclones came in a span of 7:27.
It only got marginally better for the Cyclones in the third quarter. They closed within 31-25 on a bucket from Nichols, but Dalton Timbs hit a big shot with 15 seconds left in the period to restore the Longhorns' confidence.
Johnson County then scored the first six points of the fourth quarter while the Cyclones took over three minutes to get their first bucket.
Finally the Cyclones came to life. They went on a 16-5 run that was capped by Bo Pless' 3-pointer to make it 44-41 with 1:12 left in the game.
But Elizabethton would score no more, and Johnson County made 5 of 8 free throws to seal the outcome.
“I wasn't worried,” said Atwood. “I knew if we made our free throws and only gave them one shot, we would be OK.”
Brian Dempsey totaled 14 points for the Longhorns while J.R. Speed chipped in with 11.
Zeke Clark and Tyler Nichols each had 17 points for the Cyclones with Nichols adding eight rebounds.
Unicoi County 65, Sullivan South 52
The Blue Devils seemed to have total control of the game, but once again they let their opponent sneak back in.
This time, they were able to close the deal.
South cut a 16-point deficit to seven at 52-45 with 3:32 left in the game. But the Blue Devils called timeout and returned to their aggressive ways on the offensive end.
“We talked during the timeout that we had lost some of our mental focus,” said Blue Devils' head coach John English. “Out of the timeout we responded and started attacking, which is how we built that lead. We closed it out after a shaky stretch.”
Austin Green — normally more of a defensive ace, passer, and ballhandler —cut loose for 19 points. He hit three consecutive 3-pointers in a span of 1:16 in the second quarter as the Blue Devils built their initial lead. Green finished with four treys.
Keith Arrowood also played a big role, totaling 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Nic Chambers added 10 points and five rebounds as the Devils overcame the injury loss of post Connor Simpson, who may be able to return for Saturday's region contest.
South got 14 points off the bench from Garrett Bowery. Evan Headrick and Christian Comsa added 11 points apiece.