By Tim Chambers
KNOXVILLE—Johnson County went into Jody Wright Arena as a heavy underdog, but the Falcons found themselves in a fight for their lives. That was until two questionable technical foul calls flipped the game and swung the momentum in Knox Fulton’s favor.
The Longhorns played one of its best games of the year but was on the losing end of a 90-76 contest that left many of their fans furious at what they witnessed over a 45-second-span.
The Falcons (26-4) were picked to run roughshod over the Horns but found themselves in a 35-35 tie game at the half. It probably would have been anybody’s contest until the fathom technical fouls turned the game a 180.
The Falcons scored eight points in a 45-second-span with six coming at the foul line. Johnson County’s head coach Austin Atwood was not pleased with all with the two calls.
“It turned the game around, it definitely did,” said Atwood. “My guys have to be smarter and know what the situation is. When you’re playing in Jody Wright’s place, and he’s on the board of the TSSAA officials, he’s going to get the call, and he deserves to get it. He’s done a great job for 30 some years so we knew coming in that we’d have to play the perfect game and them not play the perfect game for us to win. If we play perfect and they play perfectly then, they beat us by 20. If we played good and they had an off night, then we had a chance, and I thought we gave ourselves a chance. For 28 minutes we controlled the game, but we couldn’t rebound with them because of their physicality. Jody does a great job of letting his kids play that way, and they do a great job at it. What we thought was a box out at home is not one here. You have to get into them because they are just too athletic.”
The first half played on dead even terms
Gavin Reece hit a long trey to start the game, but Fulton ran off six straight to go up 8-3. Johnson County used a deuce by Blake Atwood and Zack Eller’s three-ball to tie the game at 8-8.
Atwood ended the quarter with 10 points, and Reece added six as the Horns played nearly even and trailed 22-21 after one.
Atwood put the Horns back in front by one with a bucket to start the second, but Fulton stretched it out to a 27-23 lead on a pair of buckets by Deshawn Page, who was voted Mr. Football in Class 3A
this year and has already signed with Marshall University.
The Longhorns refused to be intimidated as Michael Oxentine scored in the paint and Reece bagged his third 3-ball to put them back in front at 28-27 at the 3:45 mark. The Horns closed the period with Atwood’s third trey and a basket by Eller on a nice little floater.
The Horns went into halftime tied 35-35 with the Falcons.
The Longhorns continued to play their tails off after Fulton scored the first eight points in the third quarter with the help of a trey each from Tommy Sweat and Trey Davis. Eller broke the Longhorns’ drought with a bucket while Atwood and Reece drained a pair of trifectas that got them within four at 49-45.
Fulton’s Edward Lacey drove the lane and was foul on the drive that followed with a technical foul on Oxentine. He hit 3-of-4 three throws, and Fulton scored eight points in 45 seconds to go up 57-45.
Oxentine was ejected from the game for picking up his second technical foul for what his coach was told, stirring down the opposing player but it sure didn’t appear that way, and I was sitting on the floor in front of the play.
Tell it like it is
The irony about this whole mess was that several times when Atwood was knocked to the floor, the Fulton players were allowed to stand over him clapping their hands and taunting in approval. And not one time were they whistled for a technical foul or even warned.
Despite the inconsistency, there was no quit in the Longhorns who played their hearts out to the bitter end.
Fulton stretched their lead at 82-64, but the Horns battled back with a fury. Reece hit a three, Troy Arnold a deuce and Atwood a three-ball in addition to converting 4-of-4 from the foul line at one stretch that got them within ten at 86-76.
Coach Atwood then showed his class by allowing senior reserves Zack Winters and Luke Rash to enter the game and finish out the final minute of their careers against the Fulton starters.
The Horns made 17-of-19 free throws in the game and 13 shots from behind the three-point line. Fulton went to the line 35 times but made only 18.
Atwood proved he was worthy of being named a Mr. Basketball finalist by torching the Falcons for a game-high 35 points and a team-high six rebounds. He connected on six treys including two from the 30-foot range and was 11-for-11 from the foul line.
He said they came to Fulton looking to win, not for respect.
“We were playing with a chip on our shoulder because everyone had doubted us all year,” said the younger Atwood. “Our mentality was that we could come in here and win. We weren’t about to lay down for them. I would go to battle with my teammates anytime. We proved a lot of people wrong this year. This was the best group of friends that you could ever play with.”
Reece had his best overall game of the season with 19 points and four assists. He hit five shots behind the three-point arc including a couple that was from the downtown, K-town range. He said the team’s heart and their willingness not to quit was what kept them in the game.
“We’ve never passed the eye test all season because they picked us to finish fifth and nobody expected us to be here,” said Reece. “The game got away from us after the technical fouls and their fast break points and offensive rebounding. The guys coming back have to get in the gym and keep getting better. This year has been as good as it gets.”
Eller agreed with Reece about the season and showed his athleticism by contributing 12 points and five rebounds in his final game as a Longhorn. He said it was tough playing through the stretch where Fulton went on the 8-0 run in the third.
“They hit their free throws after the technical was called and then they got a few transition points during that stretch,” said Eller. “We played as hard as we could, but it seems like they got several calls in the third quarter. It’s hard to overcome that against a good team like them. “
Page led the Falcons with 26 points and ten rebounds. It could have been more, but he was 4-of-13 from the charity stripe. Lacy added 22 points before fouling out with 2:06 remaining. Trey Davis and Tommy Sweat tallied 11 and 10 points respectively giving the Falcons four players in double figures.
The game was well played in the first half as each team committed only five fouls each.
Johnson County who was playing their first sectional game since 2006 finished the year at 26-7. Atwood applauded them from their outstanding body of work and team chemistry.
“These kids are a close-knit group that knew their roles and did them to the best of their abilities. That’s the reason that this team is so special. I’ve coached for a long time, and I’ve never had a group of kids like this. In 69 practices, I did not have one day where I dreaded going. I loved every minute that I got to spend with them, and I appreciate them giving me a year that we’re going to remember for years to come.”
Senior Troy Arnold credited his coaches and teammates for the outstanding ride they had. He was the quarterback on the football team that went 9-2 and made the playoffs.
“Some people didn’t know about Johnson County, but I believe they do now,” said Arnold. “We had something prove, and I believe that we did that. Our coaches were the best, and I couldn’t have played with any better teammates. It’s definitely a year that I’ll always remember. If I ever have any downtime I want to be with the guys on this team.”
Fulton will move on to play in the state tournament at Murfreesboro. It will be their fourth appearance in five years having won one and reaching the title game twice including last year.
Johnson Co. 21 14 13 28 -76
Knox Fulton 22 13 28 27 -90