A rescheduled game on account of snow earlier in the season put the Johnson County Longhorns in a good position for their upcoming district tournament bid. Picking up a last home game against Sullivan North Monday, Johnson County fans knew they would be facing the same team again Thursday night in Elizabethton. While the game came down to a very narrow two-point loss for the Longhorns, Head Coach Austin Atwood was confident that the match up would be beneficial in providing an opportunity to review his teams mistakes in preparation for the real battle later in the week.
We did everything tonight that were going to try to do against them later, Atwood said. Its just good to have it on film to look at it and break it down. I dont know what exactly, but were just going to have to adjust a little bit. We just cant play them man-to-man, they do too good a job, though we did try it a time or two.
As they did earlier in the season, North relied on their small core of very talented players like Grayson Ball and Chase Arnold to carry the team. Knowing this Atwood made every effort to slow the game down and put those primary players in bad positions offensively. The strategy worked for a good portion of the first half, allowing Johnson County to close out the first quarter ahead 16-13. Most of the Longhorns offensive scoring was done by Brian Dempsey and Chase Phillips, but in an effort to mix things up and save some of his other players for Thursday, a few of the younger roster like Jordan Grubb had a big opportunity to put on a good performance, including a huge three-pointer late in the quarter.
Speaking not only about Grubb but freshman Cody Bailey as well, Atwood went on to say, We started Jordan the other night at Unaka and we may start him again in the tournament game. We dont know what were going to do yet, but Bailey is another kid thats coming on, and I think he may present some problems for them, so we may even start him. Were not exactly sure what were going to do.
Despite their best efforts Arnold and Ball continued to work their way through the Longhorn defense, eventually taking back the lead midway through the second quarter. Even with the Raiders getting as much as seven points ahead, Johnson County was determined to get back in the game and following a three-pointer from Phillips right before the half, along with a bucket by Patrick South on the rebound and a last second shot from Cody Bailey, the Longhorns finished up the second trailing by three at 36-39.
With Johnson Countys defense finally starting to get a handle on the game, Arnold slowed down considerably in the third quarter, going from making 17 points in the first half to just three points before the fourth. Yet, even slowed down Atwood knew that Norths best player would be a serious contender by the end of the game. I dont know if we made the adjustment or he did, Atwood said. Youre not going to do much with him. Hes a great player, a great kid, and Im glad to see him doing well. I tell you, hes just hard to guard. You take him outside, and he takes you inside. If you guard on him right there he takes you inside. Zoning, he does a good job of backside stealing and going to the boards. Hes just good.
With just 1:36 on the clock, Chase Phillips landed a basket that tied up the game 49-49, but even then the Raiders were far from down and out, making the last two advances to be able to come into the fourth ahead 49-53. While the Longhorns struggled to hold on, North was racking up fouls and by the beginning of the last period, Grayson Ball, one of the Raiders biggest offensive forces was working on his last offense. The only problem was that the same could be said for some of Johnson Countys players. Its always nice when Ball goes out, Atwood said. Grayson did a great job in the first half of going to the boards. Then #50 did a good job of penetrating, our guys leaving him and then finding him when he makes another bucket. He was a factor, him and Grayson Ball both. Of course, we had to sit Mahala a little while and hes just a good role player. When those guys went out we had to plug some kids in and it kind of put us behind the eight-ball a little bit offensively.
Even with the foul trouble the game was a close call right to the end. With 1:40 on the clock Brian Dempsey made a critical foul shot that put Johnson County at 65-66, but foul trouble against the Longhorns ate away at the home teams chances in the last 30 seconds. Struggling to get the ball back anyway possible, North got the chance to go to the line two more times before the buzzer, pushing them to 69.
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