Its no secret that the Johnson County Lady Longhorn basketball team has had its share of bad luck lately. After a relatively disappointing showing at two consecutive Christmas tournaments, the already understaffed team lost two more starters, leaving just eight in the entire lineup. The first game after a considerable break in playing time was against a tough group of Unicoi Lady Blue Devils on their own turf in Erwin. Yet, while the game went down officially as another loss on the record, Johnson Countys tenacity and determination even in the face of insurmountable odds, really shone through Friday night in what became one of their most exciting and entertaining games of the season thus far.
Under the circumstances that weve been through lately, I am very proud of the girls, said an optimistic Coach Todd Whittemore. I enjoyed coaching tonight. We gave our fans something to be proud of because we didnt quit, didnt give up, and kept fighting. Thats all I can ask for. Were under a little adversity right now, so to see us get down and battle and fight back, that was huge.
From the very beginning of the game there was a noticeable change in the girls. Gone was the dull, drained, and disinterested appearances of the past few weeks, replaced instead by a grim sense of purpose and a whole new spark of energy and drive. Led by senior Brooke Brown, who could be seen going over plays with the younger players even before the game started, the Lady Longhorns were forcing turnovers, getting strong rebounds, and taking advantage of any near miss that the Lady Blue Devils might make at the net.
Baskets from Kourtney Tolley and Kelsey Duperry, combined with a stellar effort by Brown, and even after falling behind early, Johnson County was able to pull off a surprisingly good showing in the first quarter that actually ended with them in the lead 9-6.
I like the start we got, Whittemore said. Brooke is third in Northeast Tennessee in scoring, maybe second now. Were starting right now one senior, three sophomores, and a freshman. Weve lost a couple of players, two starters, but I tell you we fought harder tonight in a loss than we have in our last two wins. Brooke has been begging to get four other players out there that will play as hard as she does.
Winning that first battle didnt necessarily grant victory in the war. The Lady Longhorns lead climbed higher at the beginning of the second, starting with a free throw from Gianna Lay that broke the team into the double digits, and helped further by a basket from Brown that was due entirely to a huge break out run from freshman Michala Cretsinger. Even at 13-6 with just over five minutes to the half, Unicoi was still able to hit a huge drive of their own.
Three point plays were key, and along with several layups, the Lady Blue Devils were able to pull off a record turn around, jumping all the way to 19 in just a couple minutes of play. Stranded at 15 after a final bucket from Brown, Johnson County saw their early successes quickly fade as Unicoi relentlessly attacked the goal all the way to the half, eventually ending up ahead 15-30.
Under normal circumstances that would have been the end for the Lady Longhorns chances at pulling off a win. However, with Brown pushing her teammates at half time, it seemed that Johnson County was going to keep playing hard no matter what the scoreboard had on it. Usually when they start getting ahead of us, making those threes and getting that adrenaline, everybody starts to get down, Brown said. This time I was like guys were not doing this. Weve got to get back into it. This isnt over. Weve got to go hard into the second half. I told them Im not giving up, so you guys cant give up and we brought it back.
Unicoi tested Johnson Countys patience and determination all the way through the third quarter, shooting a flurry of three pointers that offset any advance. Even so the Longhorns kept fighting, with Duperry, Tolley, Brown, and even Amanda Potter throwing in their contributions to the mix, and although the third started off with Johnson County behind by nearly 20, the team was able to come into the fourth behind by just 13 at 30-43.
That last quarter became a battle to cut the lead back to the single digits, with both Cretsinger and Lay gaining baskets along with a steady stream of advances from Brown. With time winding, the Lady Longhorns never slowed their pace, ultimately winding up the night just nine points shy of a victory at 42-51.
I thought second quarter we really got killed on the boards, reflected Whittemore. That allowed them to get that big lead, but we came out in the second half and did a better job on number 55. She didnt hurt us as much and we were working back in. We cut it to nine and set up our press and we just had one girl make a missed assignment, but we were down by nearly 20 at one point.
Although a loss, the renewed effort on the court was still a cause for celebration, making it hard to tell exactly which team felt better about the game. The one thing that was certain, and possibly the most important lesson of the night, was that the girls could truly feel proud of themselves for the first time in a long while. No one could dispute that Johnson County left their best effort out there on the court, highlighting something the Lady Longhorns found within themselves and can hopefully hold onto for the rest of the season.
Johnson County 42,
Brooke Brown 27
Kourtney Tolley 7
Gianna Lay 3
Michala Cretsinger 2
Amanda Potter 2
Kelsey Duperry 1