Sullivan East has always made itself at home in the Hardee’s Classic.
Saturday night was no exception as the Patriots (6-0) became the first four-time champion in the 22-year history of the tournament with a 66-61 win over Unicoi County (4-1).
The race to title No. 4 was a big deal for both Three Rivers Conference rivals. East, which has played in all the previous tournaments along with the host school, has now won two of the past three Hardee’s after Unicoi became the first school to win three championships in 2008.
“We love the Hardee’s. It’s a great tournament, a great way to start the season,” East head coach John Dyer said. “It was a game of spurts. They spurted on us, and we had a good spurt and they came back. That’s the way it’s going to be every time we play them.”
Tournament MVP David Casaday led the way for East with 18 points in the championship game. He was particularly big down the stretch, hitting seven fourth-quarter free throws. Unicoi took a 15-7 lead at the end of one quarter, and led 28-20 before East went on a 13-0 run to end the half.
The Patriots pushed their own lead out to 13 points (47-34) midway through the third quarter, but the Blue Devils battled back to tie the game 50-50.
Down the stretch, Casaday’s free throws proved the difference as East maintained a slight lead the rest of the contest.
“Coach has us practicing free throws every day, and we also have a little competititon amongst ourselves,” Casaday said. “We try to hit 10 in a row, so we bring that practice to the game.”
The Blue Devils were hampered by a poor night from the perimeter, with Davey Edwards’ 12 points being the only points coming behind the 3-point line.
Austin Hensley led all scorers with 24 points for Unicoi and Trevor Shelton tallied 21 points.
East had a more balanced attack with Chance Davis totaling 14 points and five players scoring in the 6-9 point range.
“I thought the run at the end of the first half hurt us, but we overcame it,” Unicoi head coach John English said. “Then we started off the second half and got down 50-38. We had some guys battle and fight, but East made the plays and Casaday took over and we didn’t have an answer.”
Third-place game Unaka 71, University High 57
The Rangers (2-3) outscored the Junior Bucs (3-2) by a 20-10 margin in the third quarter and went on to dispose of their Watauga Valley Conference rivals.
Getting beat in the post in the first half, Unaka came out in the second half and collapsed the defense. The strategy worked, aided by Logan Carrier’s four shots behind the arc on offense in a 23-point performance.
“We went to a 2-3 zone and started giving them different looks,” Unaka head coach Aaron Dugger said. “Then we started putting pressure on the guards to make that entry pass a little harder.
“With Logan, that’s what he can do. To be a sophomore, I’m glad he goes to our school because the future is bright.”
Billy Bales added 17 points to the cause after the Rangers trailed 34-32 at the half.
John Crowe led University High with a game-high 25 points. He hit eight field goals and scored over half of his team’s points in the first half, but had limited touches in the second half.
“We felt like we had a matchup advantage in the post, but for whatever reason we went away from that,” UH head coach Justin Penley said. “We didn’t make very good decisions and for that, I’m disappointed.
“You have to give Unaka a lot of credit too. We knew coming in they were much improved. Coach Dugger has those guys playing hard and believing in his system. They’re going to be a handful all year.”
Seth Hilbert tallied 14 points and Marcus Taylor added 13 for the Junior Bucs.
Fifth-place game Cherokee 70, David Crockett 49
The Chiefs (3-1) looked like the team cast as pre-tournament favorite with an easy win over the homestanding Pioneers (3-3).
David Crockett played a 2-3 zone to keep it a nine-point margin (34-25) at the end of the first half. Facing more man-to-man in the second half, Cherokee used its athletic ability to quickly pull away for the win.
“They’re an all-around good basketball team,” Pioneers head coach Richard Tarlton said about the Chiefs. “They shoot it well and pound the boards. For us to even have a chance, we had to put a body on somebody and take care of the basketball. We didn’t do either one real well at any given time.”
Tanner Trent came through with a 25-point performance for Cherokee and James Scales poured in another 21 points. Anthony Campbell led Crockett with 17 points. Isaac Mango also hit double digits with a 10-point effort.
Seventh-place game Sullivan South 62, Daniel Boone, 60, OT
AJ Hutchins hit a runner from the foul line at the end of overtime to lift the Rebels (2-3) over the Trailblazers (2-3).
“We just tried to get it in and attack,” Hutchins said. “We pushed it up the floor and tried to catch them off-guard. When nobody picked me up, I just pulled up for a little bank shot.”
Asked if he called for the bank shot, Hutchins smiled.
“I definitely wanted the ball,” he said. “I love those pressure situations. That is what you live for.”
Austin English led South in scoring with 20 points, while Hutchins finished with 15. Point guard Ryan Headrick added another 10 points.
Ryan Gaitor finished with 18 points to lead Boone. Other Trailblazers in double figures included Jacob Littleton with 13 points and Dillon Reppart with 11 points.
It was the second night in a row when free-throw shooting during pressure situations doomed the ‘Blazers. Boone missed 2 of 5 free throws over the final minute of regulation and the final minute of overtime.