In what could be a turning point for this season, the Longhorns played one of the best and most exciting games that Shoun Gymnasium has possibly ever seen Thursday night against the visiting Sullivan East Patriots. Games against East are always high energy, especially considering the long history with current Patriots and former Johnson County Coach John Dyer. Yet last weeks game proved to be something truly special, starting out as an evenly matched, overly physical battle from start all the way to an explosive overtime finish. After weeks of facing narrow losses against extremely tough teams like Science Hill and Daniel Boone, the Longhorns first conference win against the Patriots finally proved that Johnson County is a very serious contender in any match up.
Even more importantly, the victory was one that every member of the team could say they truly earned. From top scorers like Brian Dempsey all the way down to rising stars like Brandon Vannoy, everyone on the roster played their part, including a returning J.R. Speed who has repeatedly overcome challenges both on and off the court to lead his team. Having J.R back is great, said Coach Austin Atwood. Hes a little out of shape but I tell you hes tough. Youre not going to meet a kid any tougher than him thats got as big a heart. I cant say enough good about J.R. Hes kind of the picture of what I want us to be like. We want to be the toughest, more physical team. Thats what John Dyer did. He came in here and knocked us around at our own game. In a heavyweight fight he won the first two rounds. They out rebounded us, out shot us, made all those free throws. He came with a great game plan.
As Atwood pointed out, there was no point during the game that Johnson County could catch an easy break. From the very first quarter the two teams remained remarkably close on the scoreboard, first getting off to a good start with a basket plus one by Brian Dempsey only to be offset by two back-to-back Patriot buckets. Dalton Timbs and Chase Phillips helped Johnson County pull back out front, but within less than a minute East had caught up to tie 7-7. At this early stage Johnson County managed to keep control most of the period, eventually closing the first 17-12 with a last second shot by Brandon Vannoy.
The second quarter started off much the same, with the Longhorns lead growing after a three pointer by Phillips, yet that shot was quickly offset by a Sullivan East long-range effort that began a tough drive to close the gap. With two minutes to the half, East had caught back up 28-28 and the effects of such a tough physical effort were beginning to show. Fouls began to increase on both sides and the scores climbed into the low 30s after all the free throws. East came out on top by the buzzer, leading 36-33.
The halftime break seemed to reenergize Johnson County, especially Dempsey and Phillips who came out in the third with a new sense of clarity. We knew what we had to do to pick up the game, Dempsey said. I didnt doubt the effort but I didnt think we were playing smart enough. I knew that these games at home are very important, especially in the conference. If anywhere we need to win here. I think that the perseverance and emotion allowed us to pick each other up, Chase hitting big shots, Dalton getting boards, Cody Bailie boxing out. I think once we started to figure out what needed to happen in the second half we were able to come in and hold back and forth and finally drive the nail into the coffin.
Although the whole team seemed to have a renewed sense of confidence, the game was still on the line all the way into overtime. Three-point shots from Phillips and Speed minimized some of the damage that the Patriots were dealing but even with a 51-47 lead at the end of the third, no one was sitting comfortable. In fact, the real turning point if there truly was one came well into the fourth, when Brandon Vannoy hit what was likely the biggest shot of his career up to that point.
With Johnson County just barely regaining the lead on a couple foul shots, 56-54 fans were nervously watching what would happen next. Their excitement paid off on one of those rare times East let their guard down, providing just enough time for Vannoy to take a shot from the corner that pushed the score up to 59. With the gym exploding into cheers, that single shot probably gave Johnson County the final boost of encouragement they needed to hang in there for the win.
Dempsey and Chase in the second half were just outstanding, Coach Atwood commented, but Brandon Vannoy, he had a big part in that game as well. He may not have scored as much as some of those other guys, but those two rebounds he had and that three he hit in the corner. Thats the biggest shot thats been hit up here in a long time. He continues to get better. Hes a kid that in just a few more games is going to be ready to go.
It would have been considered a good game just up to that point, but with pressure mounting as the clock counted down what began as a very physical game got even worse. The speed was so intense and the effort so strong that unavoidably some calls got by the watchful eyes of the game officials, a fact that Chase Phillips believed contributed to the ultimate win. It was physical, very physical, Phillips said. There were a lot of fouls on both sides of the ball, and a lot of fouls missed. You could get away with some tonight. I remember one time jumping for a rebound, floating five foot out of bounds and them getting the ball back. It was a very physical game and we just got lucky and came out with the victory. I guess we just out physicalled them a little bit toward the end.
The last minute of the fourth was all about big plays. Johnson County was behind 61-64 until a shot by Brian Dempsey brought it closer at 63-64. Phillips landed a huge three pointer that could have finished the game right there, 66-64, but with 45 seconds on the clock East was able to land one more layup to finish the regular game 66-66.
Now with four extra minutes of time every single drive became paramount. Dempsey helped Johnson County to be the first to go up but East turned things around with a three pointer. Now with one point between them, Dempsey took back the lead again with a trip to the foul line. East returned with another basket, and in a back and forth game of cat and mouse the two teams jumped into the low 70s. Another foul on Dempsey evened the score at 73 with 1:52 left on the clock. Now with the Patriots in possession every eye in the gym was focused on the court.
The clock continued to tick as a strong defensive measure kept the Patriots at bay, but with less than 30 seconds left in play any type of scoring could have upset the balance. As it wound all the way down to nine seconds, Chase Phillips made one of the biggest plays of the night, stealing the ball and driving it in for two points. At 75-73, the game could have gone into a second overtime, but a foul on Cody Bailie put the icing on the cake, sealing the win with two free throws at 77-73.
For Brian Dempsey, who came away with 33 points to his credit alone, the game was the crest of a wave that has been building for a long time. We finally took a game away that was probably the biggest win Ive been in, Dempsey said. Were finally going to have this team that weve been earning and yearning for since August, which is a high caliber team that is able to get the ball down the court and get some good shots. Against John Dyer, I cant even think of the words to describe how smart he is and such a good coach. You do one thing to get a bucket and hes got another defense for you that will go right back at you, but even being able to play against his coaching ability is an honor. We all just played our hearts out.
Johnson County 77
Sullivan East 73
Brian Dempsey 33
Chase Phillips 28
Brandon Vannoy 5
J.R. Speed 4
Dalton Timbs 4
Cody Bailie 3