Freedom boys' holds off Watauga comeback bid
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
MORGANTON -- Watauga's boys' basketball team showed Wednesday night that it pays to keep playing hard, even if that team falls behind by 21 points by halftime.
Freedom was nearly on a 100-point pace in the first half of its 82-71 victory over visiting Watauga. The Patriots held a 48-27 halftime lead, but saw that lead shrink to 56-50 by the end of the third quarter, and to 66-62 in the fourth.
Freedom regrouped by going on a lightning-fast 7-0 run to take a 73-62 lead that would never be threatened. The run, which started with a three-point play by guard Gabe Logan, was extended by a Logan basket off a Freedom steal and capped by a steal-and-dunk by Jeron Hemphill.
Freedom (12-0, 3-0 Northwestern Conference) kept the Pioneers (9-3, 0-3) at arm's length by making 9-of-10 shots from the foul line in the final 1:13 of the game. The Pioneers never got closer than seven points (73-66) the rest of the game.
Logan led the Patriots in scoring with 27 points, while Hemphill had 17. Khris Gardin added 16 with the help of three 3-pointers.
Despite Freedom's top three scorers, Watauga nearly completed a comeback from a 23-point second-quarter deficit.
"It was a heck-of-a third quarter," Pioneers coach Rob Sanders said. "You've got to give Freedom credit. We got it down to four and they hit some big shots and when it came down to us having to stretch the game out and foul, they hit free throws. They hit enough free throws to get (the lead) back into double digits and seal the game.
Watauga's Cam Baker scored 16 of his game-high 29 points in the second half. Baker, who also grabbed nine rebounds, made nine baskets from 2-point range and three from behind the 3-point arc.
"He is one of those players who is never going to quit," Sanders said. "He can be a sparkplug and he feeds to the other players. They see his passion for the game and is psyches them up and gets the to play harder, too. He's so quick and long that he can cut down a passing lane in a hurry. Whenever he's able to get run-outs for us, it sparks his offensive game and it feeds our shooters."
Sanders felt Watauga was handicapped in the first half by not being able to play or practice since Saturday. The storm and frigid temperatures that passed through the area Monday and Tuesday kept the Pioneers from practicing during those two days. The storm also moved Watauga's game with Freedom back from Tuesday to Wednesday.
By the time Watauga took the court Wednesday night, the Pioneers had gone three full days without playing any basketball at all.
"You've got to remember now that these guys haven't done anything for three days," Sanders said. "That's a lot to ask of a team to come in and play an undefeated team and the No. 1 team in the league when you haven't done anything since Saturday. A lot of that first half was rust. When you haven't been working your drills and you haven't been getting up and down the court and the other team has, and they're already more athletic than you are, you kind of look like you're standing in quicksand. It took us a little while to shake off the rust and get ready to play."
That rust was gone in a third quarter that saw the Pioneers outscore Freedom 23-8. Watauga opened the quarter with an 11-2 run capped by a 3-point basket from Utah Jones with 5:15 left in the period. Watauga made all five of its shots during the run, and ended up making 10-of-15 from the field in the third quarter.
"We came out with a lot of intensity," Baker said. "We picked it up, but that's how we have to play all game. The only people we can put this on is ourselves."
Jones added 14 points, including two 3-pointers in the third quarter. Jay Harrill scored eight points, and center Matt Lambert scored six of his eight points in the third quarter.
Freedom, which seemed unstoppable during the first half, tried to retaliate with 3-point attempts in the third quarter that Watauga was rebounding and using to spark fast break opportunities. The Patriots made just 3-of-15 shots from the field in the third, and ended the eight-minute period with a five-second violation trying to get a shot off with 10.6 seconds left.
"They are a very good offensive basketball team," Freedom coach Casey Rogers said. "They've got a lot of weapons. In the third quarter, we didn't defend nearly as well and we did the first half and allowed some of those weapons loose. They made us pay for that in the third quarter."
Rogers said the third quarter has been difficult for the Patriots all season. On Wednesday, Freedom scored 26 in the first quarter, 22 in the second and 26 in the fourth quarter. The Patriots were limited to eight points in the third.
Rogers said the Patriots found their offensive rhythm by not taking so many 3-point shots.
"We did a better job of being solid defensively and we stopped settling for the 3," Rogers said. "During that third quarter stretch, we took a lot of settled 3s as opposed to taking them off the inside-outside action."
Freedom looked like it would have no trouble winning the game after taking a 21-6 lead in the first quarter. The Patriots made 10-of-17 shots in the first quarter, and after the game was tied 2-2, Freedom made 8-of-8 shots from the floor during a 19-4 that put them in front 21-6.
Watauga closed to 26-11 by the end of the first quarter, but Freedom started the second quarter with a 10-2 run t take a 36-13 lead with 5:28 left in the first half. Watauga did not help itself by committing 14 of its 17 turnovers in the half.
Watauga hosts NWC rival Hibriten on Friday. The Pioneers beat Hibriten 65-52 in a nonconference game in the Colvard Oil Holiday Classic tournament on Dec. 28.
Freedom boys 82, Watauga 71
Watauga 71 (9-3, 0-3 NWC)
Harrill 4 0-2 8, Eggers 2 0-1 5, Gailes 1 1-2 3, Poulos 1 0-0 2, Dobbins 1 0-0 2, Jones 5 2-2 14, Baker 12 2-3 29, Lambert 4 0-0 8. Totals 30 5-10 71.
Freedom 82 (12-0, 3-0)
J. Hemphill 7 2-2 17, Butler 1 0-0 3, T. Hemphill 3 1-2 7, Gardin 4 5-5 16, Wilson 2 0-0 4, Logan 9 7-8 27, Bridges 2 1-2 6, Moore 1 0-0 2, Wakefield 0 0-0 0. Totals 29 16-19 82.
Watauga 11 16 23 21 -- 71
Freedom 26 22 8 26 -- 82
3-point goals--Watauga 6 (Baker 3, Jones 2, Eggers), Freedom 8 (Gardin 3, Logan 2, J. Hemphill, Butler, Bridges). Rebounds--Watauga 30 (Baker 9), Freedom 35 (J. Hemphill 9). Turnovers--Watauga 17, Freedom 8. Total fouls--Watauga 18, Freedom 12. Fouled out--None. Technical fouls--None.