The Longhorns recent winning streak came to an extremely close end last Monday night against the highly ranked Sullivan South Rebels. Although they played extremely well through the entire first half, a short but effective run midway through the third set the pace for the rest of the game, leading down to a last second shot that made all the difference between victory and defeat.
Even Rebels coach Mark Pendleton admitted that he was very nervous about actually pulling off a victory against Johnson County. I thought both teams did a good job of not quitting, Pendleton said. They got us down early but we hung in there, just hung in. We got them down four or five points that one stretch but they never quit. It was a battle between two good teams tonight and we were very fortunate to come out on the winning end.
The Longhorns started off extremely strong considering their opponent. Chase Phillips hit a three pointer that offset an earlier South layup and from there Johnson County started to climb. Free throws from senior Brian Dempsey and a couple of close baskets by J.R. Speed, as well as one long range shot, quickly had the Longhorns into the double digits while the Rebels floundered at eight. South finally got a last basket in just before the buzzer to close the first trailing 14-10.
Johnson County was able to widen their lead significantly during the first part of the second, beginning with a bucket from Dempsey followed immediately by a foul for Chase Phillips after the rebound. Those free throws pushed the score to 18-10, and things only got better when Dempsey went in for another layup and gained a free throw of his own. South got the best end of the deal on the next rebound and the score settled back at 21-14. Although Dempsey came back with several more successful shots, the Rebels did start to gain some ground late in the quarter, highlighted by a foul declared after the Longhorns had already gone back to the locker room for the half. Closing out 29-24 Johnson County was still well in control, but was unprepared for Souths change of game plan in the third.
We decided at half time that we had to play more on the defensive end and get those stops because Johnson County has got some really good players, said Pendleton. We were able to go over the line there and take the lead in the third quarter. I think that made us a little more comfortable with the situation, not that the game was over by any means.
For Johnson County Head Coach Austin Atwood, the third quarter turn around was not only the result of action on the part of South, but the inability to avoid some critical fouls early on as well. The stretch in the third quarter is what weve got to stay away from and we know it, Atwood said. But before you got to that point you have to consider us getting into foul trouble, and were making stupid fouls. Were making fouls underneath the bucket. It isnt like our guard is up and making a foul. Weve got to get that fixed. Weve got to have our best five guys on the floor just as much as possible. We came out in that stretch in the third and had to fight our rear ends off to even get back into the game.
With the Rebels outscoring 8-17 in a single five-minute stretch, Johnson Countys cushion was quickly eaten away and the team was actually facing a four-point deficit at 37-41. The Longhorns were finally able to regain some composure at the beginning of the fourth, but the triumphant attitude of the first half was noticeably diminished. A three-pointer by Chase Phillips early in the fourth cut the lead back to three, which then fell to a tie after an amazingly accurate bucket from center court by J.R. Speed. Now at 43-43 Johnson County desperately needed to go on a run of their own, but was always held back by the rebel defense.
The game started to get ugly in the last few minutes, with South holding as much as possible after regaining a narrow two-point lead that eventually went up to four. A basket plus one for Sophomore Cody Bailie at the three-minute mark actually saw Johnson County retake the lead 48-47, only to start a back and forth battle to keep it. Fouls began to define the outcome of the game in the last couple of minutes, with another trip to the line for Bailie pushing Johnson County up by one again at 52-51.
With South back in possession, one of the big defining moments came when J.R. Speed made a desperate steal that ended up as a scramble on the floor. Speed got the ball just in time for Coach Atwood to call a timeout, and once again Johnson County was back in control. That could have been the game changer except for more foul trouble under the goal in a fight for the rebound after Johnson Countys shot fell short.
South once again took possession, and with only 19 seconds on the clock, Johnson County was forced to foul again in an effort to make something happen. Luck seemed to be on the Longhorns side as South missed the one and one shot, with Johnson County taking the rebound. Now with just 10 seconds left and trailing by one point 52-53, Atwood took a final timeout and laid the ground work for what could have been a great play.
As Atwood pointed out, the team simply could not get into position to make the one layup needed to win the game, despite the fact that the play actually went as planned. We just threw that up in the huddle and I thought they executed pretty good, Atwood said. The pass was a little late, if they had got there a second earlier it would probably been a layup instead of a five-footer, but still, to execute a play just out of a timeout it was pretty good. Thats just having veteran guys, but its a tough loss. Its a hard loss to swallow because our kids did fight so hard.
With no time left for another opportunity, fans were left to settle with a one point defeat to top off what was otherwise a very exciting game. Naturally relieved after barely scraping by, Souths Coach Pendleton actually seemed to look forward to the next match up later in the season. There was a lot of pressure tonight, Pendleton said, but I think it was good win or lose. This early in the season its good to play these types of games. Its got tournament atmosphere and when district tournament does roll around every game is going to be like this.
Johnson County 52
Sullivan South 53
Chase Phillips 21
Brian Dempsey 14
J.R. Speed 8
Cody Bailie 5
Dalton Timbs 4