ERWIN — Like an eye-of-the-tiger fighter, Unicoi County simply wouldn’t stay down for the count.
Austin Hensley, Ethan Rice and tournament most valuable player Trevor Shelton came up big late in the fourth quarter and the Blue Devils claimed the District 1-AA basketball championship with a riveting 56-52 win over Sullivan East on Tuesday night.
Playing in its eighth straight district title game, the Blue Devils won their sixth championship in that stretch.
“We take a lot of pride in winning the district,” said Unicoi head coach John English. “Some people wrote off these kids, but they took that as a challenge and really responded.”
The Blue Devils (26-4) will play host to Grainger in the Region 1-AA quarterfinals. East (22-8) will play host to Cumberland Gap.
In the third-place game, Sullivan North held off Johnson County 52-47. North will visit Greeneville while the Longhorns travel to play South Greene.
Things didn’t look promising early for the Blue Devils. Shelton had a temperature well over 100 on Monday, and wasn’t too chipper Tuesday.
“I felt terrible before the game, and I feel terrible now,” said Shelton in the postgame interview. “But the crowd got into it, and that helps you. And you don’t want to let your teammates down. You’ve got to play as good as you can.”
Making matters worse, Blue Devils’ starter Lucas Hensley was also sick. And the Patriots were simply pounding the Blue Devils with a heavy dose of Chance Davis, who had 19 points in the first two quarters.
After a 23-9 burst by East out of the gates, it was 35-24 at the break. But things changed in the second half.
Davis would get just two points the rest of the way, and East would total less than half of its first-half production. Unicoi’s defense on Davis was a big key, but rebounding was a bigger part of the story as the Blue Devils outrebounded East 30-13.
“Out defense tightened down in the second half,” said English.
Unicoi began to chip away as Rice drained a pair of giant trey balls in the third quarter. He then made a driving layup to cut East’s lead to 48-45 at the end of three periods.
Austin Hensley scored to open the fourth quarter, but the Blue Devils turned the ball over on three straight possessions. They had 17 for the game, but somehow overcame it.
“With the district championship on the line, the guys played with a lot of heart,” said English. “The guys have overcome adversity all year long.”
Shelton scored with 4:58 left to again make it a one-point game at 50-49. Rice hit a jumper with 2:21 left to make it 52-51.
“We just kept battling and fighting,” said Rice. “We knew if we worked hard, we would get the job done. And we knew we had to lock down on defense.”
East’s Logan Jordan missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity, and Austin Hensley made a driving shot in the lane to give Unicoi its first lead since 2-0.
David Casaday had a chance to give the lead back to East, but he missed two free throws. Then Shelton made one of two free tosses.
After an East miss on the next possession, Austin Hensley sealed the win with a pair of free throws with 10.9 seconds to go.
Unicoi took only five shots in the fourth quarter and made four of them for 80 percent. The Blue Devils were 11 of 15 from the field in the second half for 73 percent.
Shelton finished with 22 points and eight rebounds. Rice totaled 16 points and three assists while Hensley finished with 13 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals.
East was led by Davis’ 21 points while Casaday finished with 10. Jordan led the Patriots with five assists.
“I felt like it was an outstanding basketball game,” said East coach John Dyer. “These teams fought like crazy and played their hearts out. I could not be any more proud of this basketball team.”
Sullivan North 52
Johnson County 47
Getting off to a strong start, the Longhorns stuck with the Raiders until the game’s final seconds.
Johnson County had possession with 27.8 seconds left, trailing by one point. But on Chase Phillips’ drive to the basket, there was a lot of contact and yet no foul call.
North then sealed the win from the free throw line.
Chase Arnold led the Raiders with 25 points. Phillips paced the Longhorns with 17.