Maybe it was the familiar maroon colors adorning the walls and bleachers or simply a fantastic first round win against Sullivan East, but whatever the reason Happy Valleys Bayless Gymnasium was the next best thing to home for the Johnson County Longhorns last week. Facing the number one seeded Unicoi County Blue Devils, there was naturally some apprehension as the Longhorns came into the second round of the Division I AA Basketball Tournament, but as the night wore on and things went slowly but steadily in Johnson Countys favor, fans were soon on their feet cheering their team on to what could be seen as one of their biggest wins this decade.
Weve been close all year, said Coach Austin Atwood. Ive been telling our guys all year long that were that close to being a really good team. Weve got three really good seniors and I knew we were just two or three things away from being a great team. Im super proud of our guys. Im proud as I have been of a team in a long time, to kind of stay the course and get the job done.
Yet a win against a high ranking team like Unicoi is never easily done, and in fact it had been nearly 11 years since the last time it had occurred. Thats not to say that Johnson County didnt get close earlier this season, but with the chance at playing a regional game at home on the line, the tournament at Happy Valley came down to pure determination. Ultimately the win came down to a series of events in the second half, some of it luck on the part of Johnson County and some of it pure endurance.
The first quarter saw the Longhorns lagging slightly, falling victim to the high speed and energy of a strong senior lineup led by players like Connor Simpson. Shots from Johnson Countys Brian Dempsey, Dalton Timbs, J.R. Speed, and Chase Phillips kept the team in the game, but the Longhorns were still trailing 10-18 coming into the second.
That gap remained fairly steady all the way through the rest of the half, even considering a long range shot by Timbs and a solid defensive performance by Phillips. Even so, Unicoi was still well in control as they left the court, knocking down the final bucket of the second and leading 31-23. However, basketball is a fickle sport where the momentum can change very easily, as the Blue Devils quickly found out in the third quarter.
Starting from the very first minute with a steal by Brian Dempsey followed up by a successful shot from sophomore Cody Bailie, it was clear that the Longhorns would not back down without a fight. Chase Phillips stepped up, made numerous critical defensive plays and a couple of big baskets, including a three pointer, and along with a strong showing from Brandon Vannoy off the bench, Johnson Countys players quickly started to change their futures.
We closed out the third quarter really well, Phillips said. It got our guys going. Vannoy came off the bench and just did a fantastic job. It was a good game. Brian Dempsey came out played his heart until he fouled out and then Dalton Timbs came up and got into foul trouble but everyone kept going, kept attacking the middle and getting to the rim as best we could. We tried to get them to look a little different, and just had to keep talking, telling everybody where to go, keep matching up. It was more of a matchup zone than anything. We just had to know where Ethan Rice and some of the three point shooters were and not let them get an open look and box out after they shot it. Its tough. They beat us twice this year. Its hard to beat a team that third time and they came out of the first half ready to go, but that second half Coach got onto us, told us we had to get going. We just went out there and took care of business.
By the end of the third the Blue Devils were still out front, but just barely at 39-43. Yet, even then it could have come down to a very narrow end had it not been for a couple of mishaps that played into the Longhorns favor, the first and most important being a minor ankle injury that took Connor Simpson out of the game. With several of Johnson Countys best players racking up fouls against them, the change up in Unicois starting line couldnt have come at a better time.
I give a lot of credit to Erwin, said Coach Atwood. They were resilient. They never quit and never thought they couldnt win. Brian got into foul trouble, Dalton got into foul trouble, but Brandon Vannoy steps in and has a heck of a game. When Simpson came in he scored. He did a good job of knocking those little jumpers down early in the game and that little jump hook. We knew once he went out we could attack the middle.
By the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter Johnson County had evened the score at 45, and moved quickly to take their first lead after a three pointer from Phillips, who then immediately stole the ball back for a second quick layup. From there the Blue Devils continued to go downhill and as much as it hurt to lose players like Dempsey and Timbs to fouls, Unicoi began to lose more and more players of their own. Brandon Vannoy stepped up and played possibly his best game of the season, landing numerous baskets and making multiple free throws even under intense pressure.
With the clock now working against them the Blue Devils became visibly frustrated and the Longhorns were well on their way to possibly their biggest win this season. By the last minute of play Johnson County was almost double digits ahead of Unicoi, a feat that few thought could be done. With a final couple of free throws by Cody Bailie and just 16 seconds left on the clock, the Longhorns walked away dominant 66-55.
The last thing I wanted to do was go to the zone as well as they shoot it at times, admitted Atwood, but once our guys figured out that if we can just keep them out of the paint and hope they werent hitting, then we knew we had a chance. Cody Bailie did a great job of flashing, we did a good job of finding Chase Phillips, cutting the middle, and I thought we passed the ball very well in the second half. But to outscore Erwin 42 to 20 something in the second half and us get 27 points in the fourth alone, then they have got to start to do some things they dont want to do and we got some easy looks. The biggest thing for us was getting that region game back in Mountain City.