By Tim Chambers
ELIZABETHTON—A strong Cyclone was downgraded to a gentle breeze by a superior team of Longhorns on Wednesday in the semifinals of the Region 1AA tournament. Johnson County punched its ticket into the sub-state game for the first time since 2003 by blowing past Elizabethton 65-56 before a standing room only crowd inside of Bayless Gymnasium at Happy Valley High School.
The Longhorns (27-5) will play Greeneville (22-10) in the Region 1-AA championship game, which defeated Sullivan South 67-64 in the other semifinal contest.
The winner of Friday’s game will play at home against Austin East (24-5) while the loser will travel to Knox Fulton (28-4) ranked No.1 in the final Associated Press Class AA poll.
All sub-state games begin at 7 p.m.
It will make only the fourth time in school history that the Horns have ever played in a sub-state game. Their only trip to the state tournament came in 1984.
But reaching the sub-state pinnacle didn’t come easy.
But it didn’t come easy.
Johnson County led 38-32 on Blake Atwood’s trey with 2:21 remaining in the third but starting guard Gavin Reece picked up his fourth foul and had to set before that. The Cyclones went on an 8-0 run with Reece out of the game to take a 40-38 lead going into the final quarter.
That didn’t sit well with head coach Austin Atwood who saw his team take two ill-advised shots and turn the ball over twice. He presented them a challenge over the final eight minutes.
“These kids grew up playing with one another over the years,” said Atwood. “I told them they were down to eight minutes and had worked for this moment since they were eight years old. It boiled down to who was going to box out and rebound and who wanted this thing the most. I could see that look of determination on their faces. I felt good when we went back out on the floor.”
A fast start by
The Longhorns started the game strong and led by a baker’s dozen at one point 22-9 on a three-ball by Atwood. Elizabethton whittled away at the deficit over the next 11 minutes and finally was able to recapture the lead with their fans standing and cheering them on.
Nico Ashley’s basket to close the third quarter appeared to swing the momentum back in ‘Betsy’s favor, but it was all Longhorns from there.
Atwood’s mammoth fourth quarter
Atwood went hog wild and scored 18 points in the final quarter. His three-point play gave the Longhorns a 44-40 lead after Lucas Phillips had given them a one-point advantage by swishing a three-ball to start the period.
Elizabethton battled back behind the play of Eric Wilson to tie the game at 46 all, but the Horns would play lights out from there.
Atwood’s teardrop bucket down the lane banked in sweetly off the glass and then added a steal and layup that gave them a 50-47 advantage with 2:54 remaining in the game.
He touched on his shot that put them in front 48-47.
The Cyclones had closed to within one on Parker Hughes’ putback, but next came the three fatal blows.
Reece swished a three-ball, and Phillips added another one on a nice feed by Reece to make it 56-51. Atwood delivered the dagger with a five-point outburst that included a three-point play to put them up by 10 with 1:01 remaining.
Atwood definitely lived up to his billing as a Mr. Basketball finalist.
The senior guard delighted the crowd with 34 points, ten rebounds and five assists. Phillips added nine points on three treys including the two backbreakers in the fourth stanza, while Reece played phenomenal scoring eight points while dishing out five assists.
Eller recorded five steals and dogged the Cyclone guards the entire evening. Oxentine’s eight points and five rebounds were key contributions, and so was the pinpoint passing on the interior and screens set by Troy Arnold.
Johnson Co. 10 15 13 27 -65
Elizabethton 4 15 21 16 – 56