Josh Saults was ready to hear the ribbing from his former teammates.
David Crockett was down by nine points to Happy Valley with three minutes left and Saults, a HV transfer, was ready to hear the trash-talking after the game.
Not to worry.
The Pioneers (2-2) rallied for the win, coming back from six points down in the final 45 seconds to beat the Warriors 60-59 in the opening round of the 23rd annual Hardee’s Classic at David Crockett High School.
“We were down by nine with three minutes to go and I was thinking we were going to lose,” said Saults, who made two big 3-point goals during the comeback. “I could just hear the talking after the game. But, we pulled through and pulled together.”
While Crockett was thrilled with the outcome, the Warriors (0-3) were disappointed to come so close and not be able to earn the victory.
“At that point, it’s just hold onto the ball and make some free throws,” Happy Valley head coach Chuck Babb said. “We weren’t able to do that. We had some ill-advised passes, some errant passes. Take nothing away from them, but you can’t help but feel like you gift-wrapped one.”
If the Warriors were in the giving mood, the Pioneers were certainly ready to receive the present.
A critical turnover gave Crockett the ball with two seconds left and Isaac Mango was fouled with only two-tenths of a second on the clock to set up a game-winning free throw.
It was the final of Mango’s game-high 20 points.
“I just had to step up for my team,” Mango said. “We started getting some good shots at the end and started knocking them down.”
Crockett led 20-14 at the half, before the Warriors rallied to cut the lead to 35-34 at the end of three quarters. Happy Valley had the game’s biggest lead, 50-41, on a bucket by Corey Matherly.
Camen Wilder scored 17 points, and Josh Price added 13 points and eight rebounds for the Warriors.
Saults had 19 for the Pioneers in the victory, a win which Crockett head coach Richard Tarlton believed his young team could build on.
“We had some opportunities to put them down early and we let them back in the game,” Tarlton said. “It went from our game to their game, back to our game. We were fortunate to come away with the win. This is the kind of game which should make our young team better.”
Unaka 56, Sullivan South 46
The Rangers (1-2) pulled off the biggest upset in Tuesday’s opening round with their victory over the Rebels (0-3).
It was the second year in a row the Class A school opened the tournament with a win over a Class AAA opponent, and the third year in a row they’ve pulled off a major upset at the Hardee’s Classic. Unaka defeated Cherokee 61-56 last year, and the year before beat Elizabethton 64-60 in a second-round game.
This season, the Rangers have started off with an extremely challenging schedule.
“We’ve opened up with three 3A schools -- Science Hill, Bearden and South. It’s great for us even though our overall record may not look that good at the end of the year,” Unaka head coach Aaron Dugger said. “Games like this, grinding out wins like this, that’s what makes you better.”
Danny Bales led Unaka with a double-double of 15 points and 11 rebounds. After being more of a complimentary player a year ago, Bales was able to transition into a starring role Tuesday night.
“I’ve been working hard in the offseason, especially on my mid-range game,” said Bales, a 6-2 senior guard. “Last year, I struggled and wasn’t providing enough points. This year, I know I have to play a bigger role and contribute more to the team both offensively and defensively.”
His twin brother, Billy, scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Spencer Nave added 10 points in the Rangers’ win.
After South scored the game’s opening basket, the Rangers reeled off 10 straight points and led the rest of the way.
Unaka took a 30-18 lead into halftime and led 42-34 at the end of three quarters. The Rangers controlled the boards, particularly in the fourth quarter to end with a plus-9 rebounding advantage.
Michael Harr was the leading scorer for South with 14 points, while Mickey Winkle and Ryan Headrick ended with eight points apiece.
Greeneville 53, Sullivan East 52
Taylor Bailey hit a short jumper with eight seconds left as the Greene Devils beat the defending Hardee’s Classic champion Patriots in their opening-round matchup.
East had an opportunity to win at the buzzer, but Jonathan King’s turnaround reminiscence of Christian Laettner bounced off the rim.
“We had a good shot no doubt about that,” Patriots head coach John Dyer said. “It just didn’t go down at the end.”
Landon Duncan led Greeneville in scoring with 20 points and Cory Waddell added 13 points.
David Casaday was the leading scorer for East with 19 points, while King chimed in with 16.
East’s head coach believed the game was lost in the third quarter when the Greene Devils outscored the Patriots 17-6 to take a 39-30 lead.
“At the beginning of the third quarter, we played lousy,” Dyer said. “They came out and took it to us. We had stuff set up, but we didn’t execute and do our responsibility. When you do that against good teams, you’re going to get beat.”