Even with extra bleachers on the stage and around the entrances there still wasnt an empty seat in the house Saturday night as the Longhorns moved into the first round of the I-AA regional tournament. Reigning in as district champions Johnson County held the number one seed, pitting them against Division Is number four seed, the Claiborne County Bulldogs. Although Johnson County was the favored pick to win the game, the Bulldogs proved that they were a force to be reckoned with, giving Johnson County a tight race throughout the first half.
I never could get a good grasp on the game for one thing, admitted Johnson County Coach Austin Atwood. I didnt do a very good job at all tonight. We were forcing it and letting our guys play strong down the stretch but that game was so hard to get a grip on what I thought we needed to do offensively. Defensively we just werent playing. We werent jumping the ball. Our fans were grade A, they scored 10 or 12 points for us, but they also kind of hindered us because our kids got caught up in it and were maybe a little bit early, a step ahead, or jumping and flying around.
Undeniably, with so many Johnson County fans pressing in there was an added incentive to perform well, and the team was able to pull together and keep within range even when Claiborne took an early lead. The Longhorns were actually first to gain an advantage, bursting onto the scoreboard with a huge back to back three pointers from seniors Brian Dempsey and Dalton Timbs. The success was short lived as Claiborne bounced back with a long range shot of their own followed immediately by a string of short, quick turnovers. By the end of the first, the Longhorns were keeping up but still trailing 13-16, with help from a very last second basket by Timbs that brought them up from 11.
Things began to level out a little more in the second, opening up with a shot from Dempsey that was followed up with another huge three from point guard J.R. Speed that actually gave back control of the game at 20-19. The Bulldogs scraped up an answering shot to temporarily regain their foothold, but with junior Chase Phillips nailing two consecutive buckets thanks to a little luck on the defense, Claiborne saw the momentum go through a major shift.
With Dempsey and Speed both landing successful offensive plays, the half ended with Johnson County leading 30-23, which only got worse for Claiborne in the third. One of the big differences between the two teams was in the ability to secure the rebound. While trouble with the Bulldogs big center made this somewhat difficult at the beginning of the game, younger players like Brandon Vannoy were able to come in and have a fantastic night.
Vannoy stepped in and did a good job. Coach Atwood said. That was a great experience for them. Thats why that second round of the district was so important. We would have had a hard time driving to Claiborne County and beating them with the athletes they have.
The home court advantage did seem to have an impact, but as senior Brian Dempsey pointed out Johnson Countys players were very careful not to let the support go to their heads. Anyone who has made it past getting into the region is not going to be a cakewalk, Dempsey said. You have to give each team its credit and honor how good they are. You cant ease up. If you underestimate them you are going to be beat. We didnt look at this as just another game. We looked at this team as a competitor and gave them the honor and respect that they deserve, but to be able to play at home again being a senior its amazing. You credit each game and being able to come back and play in front of this crowd, it was just awesome.
Even with the crowds only becoming more excited as the Longhorns began to dominate the court, Claiborne still fought back hard. Johnson County led by nearly 10 points at the beginning of the third but by midway the Bulldogs had managed to cut it back to just four at 36-32. Dempsey was able to put a little more distance with a quick layup, but that ultimately only served to offset an answering Claiborne three pointer that cut the score to 38-35. In the end Johnson County proved to have a couple more buckets to their credit before the start of the fourth, allowing them to retain control of the tempo 42-36.
With a bid at playing sub-state on the line, the game came down to the final eight minutes. Chase Phillips started off with a short shot from center court, eventually followed by two more layups. By the two minute mark the Bulldogs nailed a three that put the score at 48-42, and Johnson County began a concerted effort to slow down the play and eat up the clock. This forced Claiborne to start forcing some fouls to get the ball back on their terms, but for once Johnson County had some luck hitting their free throws. Repeatedly the Bulldogs would send either Phillips or Bailie to the line and repeatedly they would watch as two more points got added to the deficit.
By the final few seconds of the game Johnson County was approaching a ten-point lead yet again, but with very little time left on the clock, Chase Phillips eventually just held the ball as Claiborne faced the reality that their season was now over. With this critical game behind them, Johnson County now prepares for a more familiar opponent, traveling to neutral territory in Greeneville to take on the Unicoi County Blue Devils for the fourth time this year.
Having lost both regular conference games to the Blue Devils the team knows what kind of challenge they face, but as Chase Phillips pointed out, the Longhorns also have their eyes on a coveted prize. Were going to focus on the next game for sure, Phillips said. I mean were going to focus on Unicoi. Right now its one and two, but its a new season so were going out there thinking of it as 0-0. If we can make it through this next game were going to go for that win and go for that regional championship.
Brian Dempsey 22
Chase Phillips 18
J.R. Speed 7
Dalton Timbs 5
Brandon Vannoy 2
Cody Bailie 1