Taking on possibly the most talented team in the conference, the Johnson County Longhorns were faced with one of their toughest games this season as they traveled to Bluff City to take on the Sullivan East Patriots. With Chase Phillips, one of the Longhorns best shooters, still on the injured list, even Coach Austin Atwood admitted the odds were against a win.
It would have been hard to beat them here if we had played perfect, Atwood said. Theyre well coached, probably the best coach in East Tennessee. Hes got good players and he makes good players great. When you have a lot of people to go to its hard to guard. The game started off slow with the Patriots jumping to an early lead but not one that the Longhorns couldnt potentially overcome.
Easts ability to shoot the three was huge problem from the outset and continued to plague Johnson County all night. Combined with a 6 foot 9-inch center who plays well under the net, the Longhorns had more than their share of challenges. Despite the odds, Brian Dempsey was able to keep his team in the running, staying just a handful of points shy throughout the first period.
Four minutes in, the Longhorns had managed to cut the lead to two at 7-9, but after stalling on the scoreboard, closed out 7-15. Johnson County made every effort to catch up before the half, and made some progress at the beginning of the second, but as Atwood pointed out it wasnt long before East took their game to a whole new level. We could take that first 10 point lead they got, Atwood said. They hit some big shots, hit some contested shots, but we didnt get in a rush. Theyre pressure wasnt bothering us a whole lot. We cut it back to five or six but then they started to dictate the tempo. We let them start setting the tempo and we started to try to run with them, but we just cant do it. Our point guard didnt have a very good game, and we knew that we were going to go through some of that with him, but, hey, hes been playing really well until tonight. He just didnt show up and that really hurt us.
After battling back to a six-point deficit, turnovers began to kill the Longhorns offensively, midway through the second quarter. With long range shots helping them along the way East jumped from a 10 point lead to a 21 point lead before the half, even counting a handful of shots by Chris Poteet, Chase Kleine, and Brian Dempsey. Fresh on the court after a long injury, Kleine played a strong defense but could do little to stem the tide of Patriot baskets.
Kleine gives us some solid minutes, said Atwood. He knows his role. Hes not going to come in and get us 10, 12, 15 points. We want him to get some tough rebounding. We want him to be a tough, physical defender. Hes a great passer and knows the game very well, which makes him dangerous for us sometimes because he sees things that other guys might not see. Were slowly working him in and hopefully by tournament time hes going to be able to get us four and five minutes at a time
With any hope of a win slipping farther and farther away, the Longhorns still never gave up. Throughout the second half Atwood worked with his team to try and gain any opening and as a result Johnson County was actually able execute better offensively in the third than they had earlier in the game. Dempsey, Dalton Timbs, and Ryan Mahala were all able to put up buckets within the first couple of minutes, helping to push Johnson County into the low 30s before the buzzer.
While East maintained a steady 20 point lead, the Longhorns refused to give up any more ground and throughout the fourth there was a battle for every possession. Dalton Timbs was able to pick up several big shots along with a handful of free throws that earned Johnson County a respectable 43-point game by the end of the night.
Even with such a tough loss, the game was still very valuable for Johnson County as many of the other players on the team have had to step up and learn to fill the offensive hole left in Chase Phillipss absence over the past few weeks, a fact that Coach Atwood sees as a sort of blessing in disguise.
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