By Tim Chambers
ELIZABETHTON—Johnson County came up three points short of hosting its first sub-state game since 1984 and what would have been the school’s second one ever at home.
The Longhorns fell to state icon Greeneville 61-58 in the Region 1-AA championship game played before a capacity crowd inside of Bayless Gymnasium at Happy Valley High School on Friday.
The heartbreaking loss came only two nights after their biggest win of the year, a 65-56 victory over rival Elizabethton in the semifinals. Greeneville won the state championship in football and one of its marquee all-state performers played a big role in the basketball victory.
Jaevon Gillespie scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half for the Green Devils who won its third consecutive regional tournament game by three points. He was selected as the tournament’s MVP.
The Longhorns battled to the very end and after falling behind 61-52 with 18 seconds remaining. Gavin Reece connected with a three-ball with 9.2 seconds showing.
Greeneville was unable to convert two free throws, and Blake Atwood got fouled after draining a long trey with 2.1 seconds left. The senior guard missed his charity toss intentionally but the effort to tip the ball out to the corner to a wide-open Reece failed, and the Devils walked away with the win.
“We didn’t play our best, and they had something to do with that,” said Johnson County head coach Austin Atwood. “We can’t zone very well, and we didn’t rebound well, and that was critical. We tried to play a zone three different times, and they hit two treys, and then they got a three-point play on the other possession. We can only go about six to seven deep, and that makes it tough when you play a team like them that goes 11 and 12 deep. But our kids battled their tails off to the very end, and Greeneville is one of the best defensive teams that we’ve gone up against. They’re probably top five in the state. We’ll play the best one on Monday night in Knox Fulton.”
Close first half
Points were hard to come by in the first quarter as Johnson County held an 8-6 advantage after one thanks to five points by Atwood and a three-ball from Reece.
A three-ball by Atwood and back-to-back steals and layups by Zack Eller pushed the Longhorns’ lead at 14-9 to start the second quarter. Greeneville stayed in the game due to numerous trips to the charity stripe.
Conner Debusk had eight points in the quarter including six that came from the charity stripe. His two free throws to end the half allowed Greeneville to push in front 21-20.
All six free throws were the result of second-chance points due to Johnson County’s inability to keep Greeneville off the glass.
Greeneville got on top 28-26 early in the third quarter, but Atwood’s four-point play after swishing a three would allow the Horns to regain the lead at 30-28.
The Longhorns continued to struggle to keep Greenville off the glass which was probably the primary reason for the loss. The Green Devils had 12 offensive rebounds, and nine were turned into second-chance points.
Tyler Marsh’s tied the game at 31 all on an offensive rebound that was turned into a three-point play with 2:25 remaining in the third.
Greeneville seized the momentum and went up by five, but Eller’s steal and layup and another three-point play by Atwood would allow them to retake the lead at 36-35.
The critical point in the game came during the fourth quarter on two critical Longhorn miscues. They failed to box out on two different possessions that Greeneville turned into points.
Bryce Buchanan ran down a loose ball and later connected on a three. His also fed Marsh on the inside for a basket with 4:33 remaining that put them back on top 46-40.
Eller got them back within three by swishing a three-ball on Johnson County’s next possession, but Buchanan and Gillespie would counter by scoring a basket each that led to their nine-point cushion. The Horns desperation rally at the end came up three points short, and they now must travel to Fulton for their sub-state contest.
The Longhorns are now 27-6 after being picked to finish fifth in the conference to start the season. Atwood knows that Fulton is a different animal.
“We’re one win away from playing in the state tournament. We’ve made it tougher on ourselves going to Fulton because they’re well coached with Jody Wright on the bench. They are probably one of the better half-court-man defensive teams you’re ever going to see. That’s a great challenge for us. And our kids like a challenge.”
Johnson Co. 8 12 16 22 -58
Greeneville 6 15 16 24 – 61