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Horns lose to bigger Memphis team in Arby's Classic

For only the second time in school history the Johnson County Longhorns were invited to take part in the highly anticipated Arby’s Classic at Viking Hall. This season marks the 31st year that Tennessee High has hosted what is now one of the most renowned holiday tournaments in the whole country, bringing in talent from all over the East Coast and even internationally with teams flying in all the way from the Bahamas and Germany. Just taking part was a big deal for Johnson County, but once the action got started it was all about the game.
As luck would have it, the Longhorns first round also ended up being the opening game for what will possibly be the team to beat in the tournament, the Hamilton Wildcats of Memphis. A very large three A school that typically dominates even the tough district scene of the western part of the state, Hamilton was a tall order for the Longhorns but they took the competition in stride.
The bright lights and huge crowd of Viking Hall did seem to have a bedazzling effect on Johnson County early on, and even with a very memorable performance later in the game it was hard for the Longhorns to pull out of the hole they dug in the first quarter. “It was a lot to do with the atmosphere,” said Head Coach Austin Atwood. “They’re not used to playing in a game like that. It would have been a much more competitive game if we could have made those early shots. I think Chase got a little star struck there. He kind of got caught up in it, but I tell you if he had made those early shots he would have been a different player tonight.”
Considering the height, reach, and depth of their opponent, Johnson County did remarkably well on the defense for much of the game. In fact, for half of the first period the Wildcats never made a basket, but as Atwood pointed out, neither did the Longhorns. Junior Chase Phillips made several clean three point attempts, and point guard J.R. Speed drove it in for nearly a half dozen layups, but not one of these attempts resulted in an actual bucket.
When Hamilton finally did work their way around Johnson County on the rebound with four minutes left in the period, they went on a run that the Longhorns simply could not match. In less than two minutes of game time the Wildcats had jumped a whopping 24 points, offset by a mere three points from Johnson County, all of which were from free throws.  This huge discrepancy set the pace for the rest of the game, and even though the lead got cut back several times, the Longhorns could never muster a true comeback.
“We weren’t nearly physical enough and we just never could get to the right spots,” Atwood said. “It’s a different story if we made the early shots. I don’t know that the end results would have been different but it would have been a much more competitive game.”
Even with the less than glorious opening Johnson County still made a strong showing, beginning early in the second with a basket from Brian Dempsey followed by one from Phillips. A couple of fouls against Speed and Dempsey respectively broke Johnson County into the double digits 12-26 and a huge three-pointer from Dalton Timbs cut it back to 13 at 15-28. The Wildcats continued to make some progress of their own, but by the half the Longhorns were still able to come in with 22 after four more baskets by Dempsey, both long range and under the goal.
In fact, while the team worked in unison on some very smooth plays late in the game, Dempsey went on to become the lead scorer, earning 28 points by the end of the night. Not surprisingly, the Wildcats and their Coach Keelon Lawson were quick to change their strategy to take Dempsey into serious consideration. “I told my kids we have to stop the middle,” Lawson said.  “Once we got into the flow and started making some stops, I said now we have to stay with Dempsey and make sure he doesn’t get the ball. Don’t trap and leave him open, because that gives him the chance to get the ball. The main thing is that I’m glad he scored 28 points and everybody else didn’t. This is a prestigious tournament and I’m glad to be here.”
Yet even with their focus on him, Dempsey continued to strive toward making the baskets any way he could. The stands would erupt as one of Hamilton’s players made a slam dunk only to turn and watch as Dempsey got his turn with a wild lay up or the off hand three pointer. More often than not the two would cancel each other out and it would be another race to regain the ball. While Dempsey’s style and versatility was certainly unique, Coach Atwood readily admitted he was a big part of the team’s competitiveness.
“Dempsey is 6’6’’, 6’7’’and still gets 28,” Atwood beamed.  “He’s unorthodox, and of course left handed, but he’s just a tough guard. He’s a tough matchup for anybody. I knew they would come out and guard him, but Dempsey played very well, and you know that may be the team that wins it.”
For his part, Dempsey’s own main concern was in just going out and having Johnson County give it the best shot they had. “I knew that if we didn’t come out strong and come out fearless that we weren’t going to get very far.” Dempsey said. “I guess it showed a little bit in the first quarter when we got down by 20 really quickly. This was a huge opportunity for me being a senior and I didn’t want to see a blowout. We preached about being fearless all week, because we’re going to be playing against people that are going to be going into Division one, Division two colleges, but we needed to hold our own and play good fundamental basketball. I just really wanted to come in against the stigma and attitude and let them know that we’re here to compete. We’re not here to just lose.”
With baskets by Timbs and Speed helping along the way, the Longhorns managed to put up another 13 points in the third and continued to have a lot of spirit even in the fourth when the chances of a final victory started slipping away. Even as the Wildcats resumed their 20 plus deficit, Johnson County continued to fight on, treating every single bucket like it was the game winning shot, a fact that kept Hamilton a little uneasy even down to the final buzzer.
“We had a long ride up,” explained Coach Lawson. “We left Memphis around 12 and our guys were really sluggish. I knew Johnson County was going to be a good team, so I tried to rotate guys in and out to wear them down and at the same time get our legs back from the ride up. I told my guys that they were going to shoot the ball well and that we are going to have to try to speed them up, make them forget about their comfort zone and put the ball on the floor instead of shooting.”
In the end it was this consistent speed and athleticism that gave the Wildcats the decided advantage, but it was still a fun game to watch all the way down the stretch and even the players seemed to feel somewhat satisfied considering the circumstances. “If we could have held it to within 10 by the start of the fourth quarter we could have had a good shot at this game,” Dempsey said. “There wasn’t as much pressure on us as on them since we are such a small town team. I knew that we weren’t going to really be able to put a body on them because they watch for the ball when it comes off the rim. I just knew that we had to find and block out and if we didn’t get a body on them inevitably they would get the ball back. It’s a big change from teams that aren’t as athletic as that but I have a positive outlook nevertheless.”
Even Coach Atwood seemed somewhat optimistic after the game. “They were athletic,” Atwood said.  “They were just very athletic, they slash, and you can tell they know the game. But, I’m pleased. We’re still hoping to get a little bit better, but right now we’ve just got to get ready for the next round Saturday.”
 
Johnson County 49
Hamilton 74
Brian Dempsey 28
J.R. Speed 9
Dalton Timbs 7
Chase Phillips 5