There was a lot at stake at Happy Valley High School Saturday night as the Johnson County Longhorns took on the Sullivan East Patriots in the first round of the Three Rivers Conference Tournament. Having tasted a bitter defeat at home earlier in the season, the Patriots were out for vengeance and did their very best to end Johnson Countys season in one fell swoop. Yet for the Longhorns it was one of those rare nights where the whole team was working in unison, anticipating and adapting to Easts plays despite being one of their closest games so far.
We knew we wore them out pretty good at their place on senior night, began Johnson County Coach Austin Atwood. I told our guys I promise you thats set back in their minds and theyre going to come at us. John Dyer is the best coach maybe Knoxville this way and when I saw his starting lineup we had to call our guys back in a little bit and tell them to be ready. We knew they were going to press us a little more than normal.
Even though East is a largely younger team than the Longhorns, Atwood was still doubly cautious of the Patriots stable of talented shooters. I was so proud of our guys for trying to stay the course, Atwood said. We never got out of that man to man. We wanted to so badly but Coach Dyer has so many good shooters we were scared to let somebody else loose.
Thankfully Johnson Countys caution paid off, but even so the Patriots were able to match them bucket for bucket through much of the game. In fact the first quarter ended in a 10-10 tie, and it was only through the accuracy and diligence of seniors Brian Dempsey and Dalton Timbs that allowed Johnson County to leave the half 5 points ahead at 23-18. Yet, the real savior of not only the first half, but debatably the whole game was Junior Chase Phillips who worked tirelessly on both the defense and the offense to put his team in scoring position.
Stealing the ball, guarding some of the Patriots toughest players, and landing bucket after bucket, Phillips was on fire, finally casting off some of the doubts over the past few weeks following a few off kilter performances. Weve been waiting on that for a while, Atwood admitted. Weve seen it here and there, but Chase is capable of taking games over and offensively thats what he did. He also did a great job when J.R. had to get a break from Grubb a little bit, stepping out and guarding him.
Even Phillips himself acknowledged that a lot of time and effort went into making this a big night, all in the hope of even greater accomplishments down the road. They are a well coached team and we just had to be ready for what they had coming at us, Phillips said. All day today I was in practice just constantly shooting, working on my shots, and I think it paid off pretty good for me. I just took the shots when I could. Our Coach preaches defense, defense, defense. I played the best I could but I have to give #25 a lot of credit. He took it to the hole strong and got around some of the best defenders we could put on him and kept them in it, but we want to try to make it to that championship game and try to get a home regionals game.
By the end of the 3rd quarter Johnson County was well in the lead thanks to a couple of narrow plays that gave the Longhorns enough momentum to go on short scoring streak right at the end of the quarter. Ahead by 6 at 32-36, Dalton Timbs landed a huge three pointer followed up by baskets from both J.R. Speed and Cody Bailie. Keeping up with a couple long range shots of their own, East just about landed a last second three pointer that failed to meet its mark, resulting in a six point deficit to start the 4th.
The Longhorns managed to just barely keep out front through the first four minutes, with baskets by Brandon Vannoy, Dalton Timbs, and Cody Bailie providing critical leeway, but by the two minute mark the Patriots had not only caught up but actually taken back control of the game, 47-48. A successful one and one for Cody Bailie, temporarily flipped the perspective, but with a 3 pointer at 1:58 on the clock East was out front again 49-51.
Time began to play a serious role in both teams strategies and time outs were called left and right down that final stretch. Thankfully an essential long range shot from Timbs put the game back on Johnson Countys side of the board for the final time, and with Bailie and Vannoy making key efforts on the defense, the Longhorns were leading 54-53 with just 23 seconds left. Resuming possession of the ball, East immediately fouled Chase Phillips who scored the final two free throws of the night to close the game 57-53.
While Atwood continued to celebrate the success of players like Phillips, he was equally proud of those absolutely critical plays made by the younger guys on the team like Cody Bailie and Brandon Vannoy. The rebound that Bailie got, the defensive deflection that Brandon Vannoy got late in the game, was just as important as that big 3 that Dalton hit or as well as Chase Phillips played through the whole game, Atwood said. Just those key things that happened right there. This is the biggest game of the year until you get past it. This is the first game of the second season. We tell our guys we want to play our regular season the best we can to put ourselves in the best spot, which we didnt do. But now this is game one of the second season and we had to come out and get a little bit of luck and make some shots.
Final Score: Johnson County 57 Sullivan East 53
Chase Phillips 21
Dalton Timbs 13
Brian Dempsey 8
J.R. Speed 7
Cody Bailie 6
Brandon Vannoy 2