ERWIN — Grainger was becoming a pest, so Unicoi County called the exterminator: Austin Hensley.
A pair of thunderous second-quarter dunks by the Blue Devils’ senior provided fuel for a three-touchdown run that lasted almost seven minutes as Unicoi blasted Grainger 62-39 on Saturday night at Devils Den.
The Region 1-AA quarterfinal win moved Unicoi (27-4) into Tuesday’s semifinals against Greeneville, a 66-61 winner over Sullivan North. The game will be played at Chuckey-Doak High School gym in Afton at 6 p.m. Sullivan East will play South Greene in other semifinal at 7:30.
After a quick 12-2 burst by the Blue Devils to start the game, Grainger knocked down three straight 3-pointers to pull within one point. However, Hensley brought the crowd to its feet with a fast-break flush.
After a Grainger bucket was followed by nine straight points by the Blue Devils, Hensley caught the ball on the baseline and drove hard to the hoop for a two-handed power-plunger and a foul.
“Ethan (Rice) gave me a perfect pass,” said Hensley. “I had momentum to the basket, and Trevor (Shelton) sealed off his man and gave me an open lane. I had to get the crowd into it, so I just threw it down.”
Unicoi head coach John English said the dunks eased some tension.
“When you’re playing an elimination game, there is tightness,” said English. “After (the dunks), I saw smiles on a lot of faces. That loosened the guys up, especially the 3-point play.”
Grainger may have been shaken enough by Hensley’s jams and Unicoi’s 12 straight points that the Grizzlies decided to hold the ball for one shot. It didn’t work.
Rice plucked the ball away with four seconds left, raced down the court and banked in a trey ball at the halftime buzzer for a 29-13 Unicoi lead.
“That was just huge,” said English. “If they scored they had the momentum, but we get a steal and a basket. It was a good way to end the half.”
Unicoi completed its 21-0 run to make it 35-13, but didn’t let up. Eventually the run stretched to 29-4 and Grainger was staring at the sad side of a 43-17 scoreboard.
It was a balanced scoring night for the Blue Devils, who were paced by Rice’s 12 points. Rice also had nine rebounds, six assists and three steals in one of his best-ever all-around performances.
Hensley finished with 11 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. Lucas Hensley and Connor Simpson each chipped in with 10 points.
Issac Harris totaled five points, five assists and played lock-down defense on Grainger standout Hunter Spaw.
“We were told he was the best player in their district, but until the game got out of hand he only had three points,” said English. “Issac did a great job.”
Spaw totaled six fourth-quarter points to end up as Grainger’s leading scorer with nine.
Unicoi won the battle of the boards, 32-24.
“They had some size, so we had talked a lot about rebounding,” said English.
Next up is Greeneville, which is 18-12 on the season.
“They’ve got a great tradition and they’ve had some real big wins this year,” said English. “They beat Bearden, Science Hill and Cherokee. We know it will be tough. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”