By Jonathan Pleasant
Just when Johnson County fans thought it couldnt get any better than beating Unicoi County on the road and gaining a home regionals match up, this talented group of Longhorns made even bigger history, sealing their legacy as the first group in decades to flawlessly win the Division I AA Championship. Once again back on the court in Happy Valleys standing room only Bayless Gym, the Longhorns met the Elizabethton Cyclones for the third time this season and this time made it count.
Having lost to the Cyclones earlier on the road by just two points on a final play that was at the very least a debatable call, there was plenty of history between the two teams, and fans on both sides of the court were rabid in their support for their respective players. Yet, unlike the Cyclones, Johnson County was still riding the high of upsetting the number one seeded Blue Devils just the night before, and that extra confidence was written on the faces of the players as they came out against the Cyclones.
We did it to Unicoi the night before, the same thing, said point guard J.R. Speed. We know what good teams can do. It was amazing. It was great for our team, great for our fans; it was great for our county. It was a huge amount of confidence, a giant confidence booster. We knew if we could beat the number one seed we could beat anybody.
Even with a lot in their corner, Elizabethton certainly didnt make Johnson Countys win an easy one. In the first quarter both teams were evenly matched with Zeke Clark and Tyler Nichols both doing a fantastic job of trying to work around the Longhorn defense. Players like Speed were able to match up basket for basket, including a three-pointer midway through the period. By the start of the second the score was tied at nine, indicating just how much value both teams put on every possession.
Elizabethton is good, acknowledged Coach Austin Atwood. When you have two players as good as theyve got theyre hard to beat, but we said if we could keep Clark and Nichols to 25 we thought we could win. It fueled them. Last night was the big win, getting the region game at home, but tonight was all for them. They wanted to be remembered as District I AA District Champions 2014.
As hard as Johnson County was playing, even with Nichols and Clark things started to change halfway through the second. Senior Brian Dempsey and sophomore Cody Bailie both really stepped in, taking advantage of missed shots to collect defensive rebounds and save offensive rebounds. As a result, Elizabethton made just one bucket the whole period, starting it off with a three pointer and then watching helplessly as one by one Johnson County went on an eight basket offensive streak that allowed them to leave the half well ahead 24-15.
With that major shift it was obvious that the Cyclones were becoming frustrated, missing shots they would normally have made and finding it difficult to really organize a determined response to Johnson Countys advances. Even so, there were a few singular breakouts in the third quarter that kept the game competitive. A plus one from Nichols at the beginning of the third offset an earlier plus one from Brian Dempsey, but with big plays such as a final three-point basket to start off the fourth, the Longhorns were still leading 33-25 as they entered the final eight minutes of the game.
For point guard J.R. Speed, who did a fantastic job leading his team, much of the win was owing to the versatility of the Longhorns lineup, especially on the defense. It feels amazing, Speed began. I know Ive got to run the team at moments but we have players who can take over the game at any time. We were just buckling up the defense and rebounding. Switching up defense, keeping them guessing so that they couldnt exactly know what we were doing at all moments. But, Clark is a heck of a player, Ill give him that.
A shot by Timbs right at the start of the fourth pushed the deficit back to 10, but there were moments, especially in the final few plays, where it looked like the Cyclones might make a final comeback. Most of the trouble came from fouls, which piled up for both teams in the final quarter. A few were beneficial, like the three early back to back trips to the free throw line for Dempsey, but just as many were made for Elizabethton, who rarely missed an opportunity to take up some of the slack.
As a result by the three minute mark the lead had been cut from 10 to seven, and steadily declined all the way down a 1:12, when the Cyclones came as close as three points 44-41. With so little time to react and so much on the line the excitement in the gym was palatable. The frustration, worry, and nervousness of the stands was almost visible as strong student sections for both teams cranked up the volume as high as they could go.
Yet with Johnson County in possession and trying to hold out through that last minute of play, Elizabethton began trying to force a turnover, ultimately sending Cody Bailie to the line where he aced both shots even under the intense pressure. Even then there was still some cause for concern, but with the Longhorns regaining the ball yet again, it was Dempseys turn to reach the free throw line, putting up two more in the Longhorns favor.
The final shots came down to Chase Phillips, a key player who had been making many of the rebounds and steals that kept his team in the game. We came out with some of our best defensive players, J.R. Speed and Dalton Timbs, and told them not to get an open look, that we were going to try to go and make their good players take bad shots and hope we could get the rebound defensively, Phillips explained. We got good looks. Coach just said get the rebounds and take off, just start pushing, push up the floor so they cant get back and set up the defense.
Fortunately the strategy worked, leading the Longhorns on to a huge 49-41 victory and their first Championship since the 80s. Not surprisingly, players like J.R. Speed and Brian Dempsey went on to take coveted all conference honors while Phillips brought home the big prize, earning distinction as the District MVP.
In a season that has had a few more ups than downs, Phillips was proud to accomplish such a huge feat but explained that Johnson County already has their eyes on the next big game. We started off strong but then had a kind of fall off, Phillips said about the season. We lost two or three games in a row and then coach just said we had to come together and if we did things would start to fall into place for us. We go in with this momentum and, we come together strong at the end of the year. Its good for us going into Regional Saturday. Its going to make things even crazier when we get back into Johnson County.
Johnson County 49
Chase Phillips 15
Brian Dempsey 14
J.R. Speed 11
Dalton Timbs 5
Cody Bailie 4
By Jonathan Pleasant