On Monday night inside Herman Thompson Gymnasium, it was time for the Sullivan South boys basketball team to advance to its first state tournament in school history.
The Rebels used a 14-3 run in the first half and a 9-0 run to start the third quarter to help secure a 76-70 win over Alcoa.
“This is something that for 20 years has haunted me because my team lost to Oak Ridge twice,” South head coach Michael McMeans said. “It’s something that was hard to get over as a player and it really drove me to come back and coach. It’s such an honor to come to the school I graduated from and 20 years later getting another opportunity at it.
“This doesn’t come around a whole lot in East Tennessee. To come here and get over the hump and go to state is fulfilling. We took advantage of the opportunity and I couldn’t be happier for the school and the whole community.”
Senior guard Ben Diamond had 23 points on the night, but his fourth quarter at the free throw line pushed the Rebels to Murfreesboro as he knocked down 12 of 15 free throws — including his last 10. He had 16 in the fourth quarter.
“When you have a kid like that that wants to go to the line, you don’t feel any pressure when he’s up there,” McMeans said. “He goes up there and knocks them down and that’s a luxury to have because that wins games for us.”
Senior Gannon Chase had 15 points and Nick Ellege had eight big points, all coming in the second half.
The Tornadoes came roaring back after being down 42-27 with 5:43 left in the third quarter. They cut the deficit all the way down to 49-46, but South was able to weather the storm and build the lead back up to 10 by the end of the third.
“We thought we had some pretty good matchups coming into the game,” McMeans said. “We knew they were athletic and they were going to guard us pretty hard. … If we could come and throw punches and get a lead or hang around that we would have a shot. We knew that they would go on a run at some point and that would be dangerous. We weathered it and then it was time to answer.”
Taishaun Cates shouldered Alcoa’s scoring load with a game-high 34 points. However, the Tornadoes could not overcome their shooting woes from the outside as they didn’t make a 3-pointer until the second half. Alcoa made only three treys on the night.
The game was also physical, to say the least, as two players for Alcoa fouled out and there were 43 total fouls called — 22 on South, 21 on Alcoa.
“That fourth quarter felt like it took an hour and neither team wanted to go home,” McMeans said. “Our guys went in there and battled. We took the hits, fouls and we were able to close it out.”