BLUFF CITY — Making the NCAA tournament or qualifying for the TSSAA state championships, the thrill is the same according to Alcoa High School head coach Tony Jones.
One year removed from coaching the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team, Jones led the Tornadoes to a 52-44 victory over Sullivan East in Monday night’s Class AA sectional at the Patriot Palace.
“No question, I can say wholeheartedly and honestly, this is a great thrill for me to get this high school back to the state tournament for the first time since 2006,” Jones said. “Obviously, everybody knows about the tradition of the Alcoa football team with seven state championships prior to this year. When this marriage occured, I told the director of schools and principal I wanted to build a tradition here like the football team did. To get to 30 wins tonight, it’s an unbelievable accomplishment for these players.”
Gabe Dando led the way for the Tornadoes (30-5) with 23 points. He had two 3-pointers as Alcoa jumped out to an early 7-2 lead and led the rest of the first half.
Down 21-17 at the break, the Patriots (25-9) rallied to take a 24-21 lead on Chance Davis’ old-fashioned three-point play before Kenny Dean and Dando quickly put the Tornadoes back on top.
The teams traded the lead back and forth before Alcoa took a 35-31 advantage into the final period. Over the final eight minutes, the Tornadoes were able to push the lead out to 10 points before holding off one last Patriot rally.
“I think we played like champions, but it was hard to get in the flow of the game,” East head coach John Dyer said. “We wanted to do so well. We took the lead, but then we missed an assignment, they hit an open three, and they get a layup.
“We just didn’t seize that momentum, but we fought, we clawed and I thought Chance Davis played tremendous basketball, as did everybody out there. We fought like crazy tonight.”
Davis paced the Patriots with 17 points, while Austin Fleenor was the next highest scorer with seven points.
Kenny Dean tallied 14 points for Alcoa, while Matt Shoun also hit double figures with 11 points.
Much of the game was determined at the foul line. The Patriots missed 12 free throws, going 15-of-27, while the Tornadoes knocked down 16 of their 20 attempts.
“We just got a little uptight,” Dyer said. “We were working so hard on those free throws. The guys just wanted it so bad.”
Alcoa was also able to control the tempo, slowing the game down to a crawl during stretches of the second half.
“They caused a lot of problems for us. They tested our patience, but we defended them well,” Dyer said. “We just missed some shots that we normally make, and then you have to go and chase once you get down.”
It was another banner year for the Patriots, who won the Hardee’s Classic tournament for a record fourth time early in the season and won the Region 1-AAA championship just last week. However, it was Alcoa which ultimately achieved the goal of a state tournament berth.
For Jones, it was satisfying after giving his players plenty of new challenges.
“I’ve been really hard on them and thrown a lot at them this season,” he said. “I gave them a lot of collegiate stuff that a lot of high school kids couldn’t grasp. My hats off to my players, especially the guys like Gabe Dando, Matt Shoun, Kenny Dean and Hunter Ramsey. I’ve been like Bobby Knight towards them.
“But we answered all challenges. Now,we’re three games away from our ultimate goal — to be the top team in Tennessee.”