In a season full of close games, the Lady Longhorns took the cake last week, playing in a match-up against the visiting Unicoi County Lady Blue Devils that literally came down to the last second. Never more than five points apart, and with the lead changing hands multiple times across all four quarters, Johnson County fought for every possession putting on a performance that went beyond anyones expectations. Knowing that Unicoi has had such a strong season, even going so far as to beat Elizabethton in double digits, no one could believe just how close the Lady Longhorns came to topping their opponent.
I told them we wanted to make it a war, said Head Coach Todd Whittemore. I think we did. Unicoi played well. They did what they had to do there at the end, so give them credit. Theyve had a nice season but Im more worried about us and I like what I saw tonight. Weve been in a lot of close games but then right at the end well do two or three foolish things and well lose by six, eight, or 10. This one we did enough good things that it came down twice to the last shot. Im proud of my girls. Im proud to coach them. Im proud to be a part of this team, this family. I hope all these lows that were feeling from close losses are just going to make the highs feel that much better when we win; when we beat somebody that were not supposed on paper, and we are. Ive got to feel like all these tough times are going to make the good times that much better.
The first quarter started off slow for Johnson County. After getting the first bucket of the game thanks to Brooke Brown, the Lady Blue Devils swiftly took command with a long three-point shot and began a race to stay on top. The game eventually tied at eight, but another Unicoi three followed by a quick turnover and lay-up pushed the Blue Devils ahead by five. A shot from the postposition by Brionna Reece evened things up a little, but even with a couple more baskets by Brown added to the mix, the Lady Longhorns still closed out the first trailing 14-17.
The second quarter settled into a rough three-point gap, with Unicoi managing to just barely stay a step ahead of Johnson County, mainly through long shots and lucky breaks. The Lady Longhorns were willing to stay in the fight, making some tough rebounds and taking several hard fouls for players like Mary Taylor. This provided a few opportunities for extra points, leaving just one point difference at 23-24 midway through the period. Players like Brandy Dugger and Brionna Reece took a beating under the net but kept getting back up and right in Unicois face. As a result of their efforts, Johnson County was still only one point behind at the half, trailing 29-30 with a final bucket from Brown. As both teams defenses took center stage coming into the third quarter, scoring slowed drastically. Unicoi was first to get back on the board, but a nice three-point basket by Kourtney Tolley helped even things back up. Unfortunately for Johnson County, the Lady Blue Devils were not done making long-range attempts, and within another minute on the clock were back up by five at 34-39. The last three minutes of the period was largely a dry spell, until the last few seconds when a couple of critical advances from senior Sarah Swift brought Johnson County back within one point yet again at 40-41.
Despite a continuing effort from both sides the real challenge didnt come until the last two minutes of the last quarter. After the Lady Longhorns finally took the lead with a basket by Mary Taylor, fans went from the edges of their seats to jumping out of them in excitement. The roof of Johnson Countys gym practically lifted off with every Longhorn advancement, and when a call was made against the home team there was a storm of tension.
Riding this wave of support, Johnson County kept control of the game for the first four minutes of the last quarter and even when another notorious Unicoi three-pointer stole back the lead with just over three minutes on the clock, the Lady Longhorns maintained their composure. Still trailing by three after a foul shot from Sarah Swift, fans were elated as Brionna Reece made a critical bucket to push the score up to 48-49 with just 49 seconds on the clock.
A walk against the Lady Blue Devils only helped things along, and with Johnson County back in possession a happy ending was looking like a serious possibility. Even after getting in position, a last essential lay-up from Swift simply would not find its way through the net. Failing to score, the ball ended up back in Unicois hands, but with just seconds left, Johnson County managed to send the Lady Blue Devils back to the foul line.
With a strong track record for accuracy, Whittemore worked to prepare his team for a last second three-point effort, but as the coach pointed out, things did not go as expected. I figured Edwards to make them both, Whittemore said. I didnt think she would miss that second one and I assumed that wed be down three. We were only down two and I assumed Brooke would see that and know when were down two we dribble, penetrate and try to score or dump off to a block. Brooke did what we said but it was on the anticipation that we would be down three. Ill take the blame, but we needed a two.
It was down to the last shot, the Coach continued. We had two chances at the end where we could have tied it or won it. I didnt do a good job with our freshmen explaining to her that when were down three, we need a three and when were down two, we only need a two. Well go to overtime. I like overtime. Id rather go to overtime than to just lose outright. Im going to take the blame for Kourtney Tolley shooting that three at the end. Ill take the blame for that. Shes a freshman, and next time its on here but this time its on me. Sarah missed that bunny inside and then we fouled and we got it back again and missed that three even though we only needed a two, but, again, thats understandable.
With Tolleys shot failing to make the goal, there just wasnt enough time to change the game and after such a long, hard battle, the Lady Longhorns were left with another disappointing loss at 48-50. Despite the outcome, Coach Whittemore could only say good things about his teams effort.
To read the entire article, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.