Pioneers face unbeaten Freedom
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
It doesn't get any easier on the Pioneers tonight when they travel to play Freedom. The Patriots are 11-0 this season and 2-0 in the Northwestern Conference after collecting victories over Hickory (67-63) and Foard (59-46) this season.
It's a tough task for Watauga, which sports a 9-3 overall record, but an 0-2 mark in the NWC. The Pioneers have lost to Foard and to St. Stephens in NWC play this year.
Watauga coach Rob Sanders said the Pioneers wanted to practice Saturday to straighten out any problems, but only had nine players. The Pioneers were not allowed to practice Monday or Tuesday because of the storm that swept through the area during that time, which means they have not met as a team any time this week.
"It worries you as a coach," Sanders said. "The guys requested to practice on Saturday. Usually in January, you don't practice on Saturday, but they wanted to meet about things and refocus and set a plan. We had a good practice, but with just nine guys, we couldn't get into transition. Now that everybody is back because they were to go back to school, they can't practice."
Sanders would have welcomed at least one workout before facing a Freedom team that is not terribly big, but works quickly with a full-court press and by shooting the ball quickly. Sanders was told by other coaches who have seen Freedom, which has eight seniors and one junior on its roster, that the Patriots are not shy when it comes to shooting 3-point shots.
"They're very typical Freedom-type team," Sanders said. "They do not have a whole lot of size, but they're very athletic and they try to create organized chaos. They'll pressure the ball baseline to baseline. It's pivotal to us that we do not crack under the pressure and panic."
Watauga also can make 3-point baskets. Jay Harrill is the leading scorer for the Pioneers with 15.3 points per game. Cam Baker adds 13.5 points per game, while Utah Jones comes off the bench to score 10.3 points per game.
Watauga averages 64.3 points per game, compared to Freedom's 70.6 per game average.
Sanders feels that even though the Pioneers are winless in their first two NWC games, and Freedom is unbeaten, Watauga could be the team that stops the Patriots' winning streak at 11 games.
"When you look at the scores in our conference, it's still wide open to me," Sanders said. "There have been a lot of close ballgames. Any team can win on any given night. Freedom is undefeated, but who better to give them their first loss than us? Hickory played them close and they've been struggling."
The Pioneers let the Foard game slip away from them late in the first half when the Tigers went on a 7-0 run, which was capped by a rare four-point play by Trey Bliss. He was fouled while making a 3-point basket and then made the ensuing free throw to put Foard in front 23-19.
Foard eventually took a 37-23 lead in the second half, which increased to 48-31 that Watauga could never completely overcome. The Pioneers pulled to within the final score with 11.3 seconds left.
"We had a run, but every time we seemed to put something together, they hit a big shot," Sanders said after the game.