Connor Simpson shoots between Tyler Page (00) and Brendan Coleman.
Connor Simpson wasn’t about to be denied.
The 6-foot-4 Unicoi County senior scored the winning basket with eight seconds left to give the Blue Devils a 53-52 victory over homestanding David Crockett in the championship game of the 24th annual Hardee’s Classic basketball tournament.
With the victory, Unicoi County joined Sullivan East as the only schools with four Hardee’s Classic championships.
Simpson, the tournament Most Valuable Player, scored just 10 seconds after Patrick Good had given the Pioneers their first lead of the game on a pair of free throws.
“We just inbounded the ball low and I turned around and took up under with it,” said Simpson about the last of his team-high 20 points. “Patrick is such a lights-out player. It seemed like he didn’t miss a shot tonight. He was going off and for a while we were trading threes for twos. We tried to limit them to one shot and get that board. There was pressure to score on every possession we had.”
Unicoi County improved to 7-0 with the victory, while the Pioneers fell to 6-2 with both of their losses coming at the hands of the Blue Devils.
Saturday night’s game, however, showed the rapid improvement of a Crockett team, playing the Blue Devils much closer than in Erwin 12 days ago. They had a chance for a potential game-winner as Good, who scored a game-high 26 points, missed a high-arcing shot in the final seconds.
“They laid it all on the line,” David Crockett head coach John Good said about his team. “Unicoi has a great team, well-coached. We just have to work on the little things. That’s what makes you or breaks you. It’s not the big things. That’s what we’ve got to keep working on.
“They competed and battled. I thought we couldn’t shoot worse than we played them over there, but we did in the first half. But, the kids fought back. You ask them to give everything they’ve got and that’s what they did.”
Unicoi County jumped out to a 15-8 lead at the end of the first quarter and led 21-15 at the end of a defensive-dominated first half.
The Blue Devils scored the first eight points of the third quarter, but Crockett stormed back on back-to-back 3-point goals by Brendon Coleman and another 3-pointer by Patrick Good.
After the Blue Devils held a 37-33 lead at the end of three quarters, Good downed a 3-pointer to close the gap to a single point.
A minute later, another 3-pointer by Good tied the game at 39-apiece.
The lead was from 1-4 points the rest of the way as Crockett tied it once more before Good finally put the Pioneers ahead.
Coleman ended with nine points for Crockett, while Lucas Hensley gave Unicoi County an all-around effort 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists. In fact, Hensley provided the assist to Simpson for the winning basket.
“We drew up the inbounds under hoping we could get Connor open and get a seal,” Unicoi County head coach John English said. “He made a great finish, and Lucas Hensley made a great find.”
Besides his own players which included All-Tournament selections Austin Green and Ethan Rice, English talked about the performance put on by Crockett’s much-heralded sophomore guard.
“Patrick Good, first of all, wow,” English said. “He just kind of took the game over and what an incredible player. Crockett has a great team. We have a ton of respect for Coach Good, his staff and his players. They have a lot to look forward to this season. That’s a hungry young team who gave us everything we wanted.”
Sullivan South 70
Sullivan East 60
The Rebels (3-3) used a big run in the second quarter to take control against the Patriots (4-3).
Tied at the end of one quarter, the Rebels outscored the Patriots 18-3 in the second quarter to take a 35-20 lead into the half.
Dalton Light was key in the run, scoring seven of his 22 points near the end of the second quarter.
“Coach had been telling us to be more aggressive with the ball,” Light said. “He was telling us to take the ball to the basket and limiting our turnovers really helped. We got a bunch of turnovers in the first half and it led to some decent scores.”
South, which also got 22 points from Will Blair, had as much as a 22-point lead in the third quarter before East rallied in the fourth to cut the lead to single digits.
It wasn’t enough despite a game-high 23 points from Anthony Vanhoy and 13 points from freshman point guard Gavin Grubb.