Freedom's shooting sinks Pioneers
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
MORGANTON -- When Watauga's boys' basketball team upset Freedom during the regular season, Watauga head coach Rob Sanders wanted to turn Freedom into a bunch of jump shooters.
The Pioneers' game plan was similar Thursday in the first round of the Northwestern Conference Tournament. Once again, Freedom took its share of jump shots. This time, unlike when the teams played before, the shots went into the basket.
Freedom made eight 3-point baskets, four by Chris Bridges, in its 85-73 victory over the Pioneers at Freedom High School, the site for the semifinals and the finals of the tournament. Bridges finished with 22 points after making three shots from two-point range and 4-of-5 foul shots.
"We did what we wanted to do," Sanders said. "We packed it in the middle and forced them to be jump shooters. The only difference from last time and (Thursday) night is they hit more jump shots. They hit the shots and we didn't."
Freedom didn't devastate Watauga with a major burst of points during the game. Instead, the Patriots kept up their offensive pressure to gradually pull away from the Pioneers, who were outscored 49-40 in the second half.
Freedom was equally effective from the foul line. The Patriots converted 25-of-34 free throws, including 10-of-13 in the fourth quarter when Watauga was forced to foul to conserve time on the clock.
The Patriots closed the game by scoring on eight of their final 10 possessions, including their final five.
Watauga kept the game close in the fourth quarter by making three of its seven 3-point shots. Three of the Pioneers' five final baskets in the game were 3-pointers.
The Pioneers got 19 points from Cam Baker, who made five 3-point goals. Jay Harrill, who made one 3-point shot, added 14 points.
Aaron Dobbins also scored 14 and grabbed nine rebounds, while Matt Lambert chipped in 11 points, including a 3-pointer. Lambert finished with five boards.
But the Patriots played much better defense on the Pioneers than Patton played in Watauga's 86-60 victory in the first round of the tournament Tuesday at Lentz-Eggers Gym. Harrill scored 32 points, made six 3-point shots, and was wide open for many of those shots.
Freedom's full-court pressure on Watauga's backcourt made it difficult for the Pioneers to get into a consistent rhythm on offense. It also didn't help that both of Watauga's point guards, Eli Gailes and T.J. Poulos, were saddled with three fouls by halftime.
Poulos finished with seven assists, but eventually fouled out with 42.9 seconds left in the game.
"We knew it was coming and we knew that the way they were going to press us, we didn't attack it enough," Sanders said. "We got back on our heels and with the size of our perimeter players and especially our point guards, we have to get it and go. One advantage is our quickness and if we hesitate and let those guys corral us, they can swallow us up."
Watauga's front-line duo of Dobbins and Lambert also battled foul trouble for much of the second half, although both finished the game.
Despite all of the Pioneers' problems, they trailed 23-22 at the end of the fist quarter and 36-33 by halftime. Watauga opened the game down 7-2, but scored on five straight possessions to climb to within 16-15.
"We knew they were going to come out very aggressively," Sanders said. "They're a one-loss team and we were the ones who gave it to them, so you knew they wanted to come out and avenge that loss. We knew we were going to have to withstand that first run. They did exactly what we thought they would do. They came out very aggressively and went on that run, but we were able to chip away at it."
Watauga took a 24-23 lead on a Harrill jumper with 7:34 left in the second quarter, and held their final lead at 28-27 after two Harrill foul shots with 3:53 left in the first half.
Freedom opened a 46-37 lead in the third quarter with a 10-4 run capped by a jumper from Kasen Wilson and a foul shot from Nigel Moore.
Freedom got 16 points and eight rebounds from Jeron Hemphill and 16 points from Khris Garden, who made two 3-point baskets. Austin Butler, who also made two 3-pointers, added 10 points.
Watauga must wait until Saturday who it will play in the first round of the 4-A state tournament. The Pioneers are the No. 1 seed of the 4-A teams in the NWC, but the teams must be ranked by the NCHSAA first.
Freedom boys 85, Watauga 73
Harrill 5 3-3 14, Poulos 4 0-0 8, Dobbins 6 2-4 14, Jones 0 3-4 3, Baker 6 2-4 19, Lambert 5 0-0 11, Ebaugh 1 1-2 3, Eggers 0 0-0 0, Gailes 0 0-0 0. Totals 27 11-17 73.
J. Hemphill 5 6-8 16, Butler 4 0-0 10, T. Hemphill 1 1-2 3, Gardin 5 4-4 16, Wilson 1 4-5 6, Logan 2 5-8 9, Bridges 7 4-5 22, Moore 1 1-2 3. Totals 26 25-34 85.
Watauga 22 11 21 19 -- 73
Freedom 23 13 27 22 -- 85
3-point goals--Watauga 7 (Baker 5, Harrill, Lambert), Freedom 8 (Bridges 4, Gardin 2, Butler 2). Rebounds-- Watauga 34 (Dobbins 9), Freedom 31 (J. Hemphill 8). Turnovers--Watauga 21, Freedom 8. Total fouls--Watauga 23, Freedom 20. Fouled out--Watauga, Poulos. Technical fouls--None.