The Johnson County Longhorns had a surprisingly difficult battle against the visiting Unaka Rangers last Tuesday night, culminating in a very disappointing last second loss. Control of the game was back and forth as both teams put up an intensely physical effort to get the win. Unaka had an ace up its sleeve with a strong three point shooter who had uncanny accuracy, racking up six long range shots from the left side corner throughout the night.
Even with such a strong offense, the Longhorns were able to keep up with their opponent at the net, but a few big mistakes defensively really cost Johnson County in the long run. We needed to get a stop, said head Coach Austin Atwood. Were more key on getting stops than having to win games by making buckets. Weve got to score, dont get me wrong, but we have to get stops.
The first quarter was a dead even heat. Starting off the game with a shot by Brian Dempsey, the Rangers were able to match just about every Longhorn bucket, coming up with a 13-13 tie by the end of the period. The second quarter went a little better for Johnson County, with Dalton Timbs landing a three early on to take the lead at 16-15, along with another three from Dempsey and a couple of good free throws by Chris Poteet. Holding back the Rangers, Johnson County was eventually able to close out the half 10 points ahead at 27-17.
A very rough and faced paced second half saw Unaka steadily climb on the scoreboard with any and every mistake by the Longhorns. Three Ranger buckets early on in the third closed the gap from 9 to just 3 points, and although a basket from Dalton Timbs, and a couple free throws each from Ryan Mahala and Brian Dempsey, maintained a narrow Johnson County lead, the Rangers only got more intense as the game wore on.
By the fourth quarter, fouls were being called left and right. Elbows were flying and the game got so physical that some fans began to wonder if they werent watching a football game. The heightened emotions of the crowd only fueled the action on the court and more than once there was a fight on the ground to gain control of the ball. Falling momentarily behind with just over 40 seconds left in the third, a technical foul for Brian Dempsey allowed the Longhorns to go into the last period ahead 40-38.
Playing such a demanding game began to take its toll on Johnson County, and as Coach Atwood pointed out, a few late game mistakes made all the difference. We wanted it to be contested, Atwood said. We just had some mental breakdowns. I told our guys that I think two things hurt us, the biggest being me. I didnt do a good job down the stretch, and there was also fatigue. I thought we really lost focus late in the game. We didnt finish a lay-up, we had a kid flip it who is a really good finisher and didnt finish. Then we had Dempsey get the ball out in space and they get a hand on it. He doesnt usually do that. Mahala missed two free throws. They were in and out.
The big problem in the fourth became Unakas three-point shooter. Despite long-range shots by J.R. Speed and Chase Phillips, the Rangers were simply able to land more than the Longhorns. According to Atwood, We had trouble losing Carrier there three or four times in a row right after we called a time out and talked about how we werent going to go for a jump defense but just go regular and make sure he didnt get a look at all. First thing Dalton just steps inside, because its just human nature, and the post guy was wide open. Dempsey knew what was going on but he just slid a little too far and got screened and then they banged another three there in the corner.
Those back-to-back three pointers from the corner ate away at Johnson Countys tenuous lead and allowed the Rangers to tie things up at 54 with fewer than four minutes on the clock. From there every single bucket was a fight, with the ball sometimes changing hands two or three times before it ever reached a basket. Foul trouble began to take its toll, and even players like Chase Phillips began to have calls against them. Chase is smart, Atwood said. I never worry about Chase making a dumb move, but sure enough the kid is going to shoot a wide open lay-up and Chase knows with three fouls he just lets that go and we just give up the two points and play for the next possession, but he fouled and kind of put us in a predicament there. I thought River and Chris Poteet and those guys came in and did a good job.
J.R. Speed was the first to break the tie, pushing the Longhorns ahead 56-54. A critical foul against Dalton Timbs allowed Johnson County to climb to 57 and another against Dempsey pushed the home team ahead by four. Unfortunately another three-point shot from Unaka cut the deficit to one. With just over a minute the score stood at 60-59, a devastating last basket by the Rangers changed control of the game for the last time at 60-61.
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