Pioneers reach third round by beating McDowell
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
Watauga's boys' basketball team is in a place it doesn't visit very often.
The Pioneers reached the third round of the state 4-A basketball tournament Wednesday night with a 76-62 victory over former Northwestern Conference rival McDowell at Lentz-Eggers Gym.
It is just the second time that the Pioneers have reached the third round. The last time didn't end like the Pioneers wanted as Watauga fell to West Charlotte 93-78 at the old Lentz-Eggers Gym in 2010.
The opponent will be different Friday night. Watauga plays at Greensboro Page, which is the No. 1 seed of the 4-A Western Regional Tournament and ranked No. 3 in the ncpreps.com state 4-A poll. Page (25-2) knocked off Greensboro Dudley 77-56 Wednesday to reach the third round.
Watauga has never advanced past the third round of the state playoffs.
Watauga had to get past McDowell first, which was not an easy task. The Pioneers turned to a committee of players for offense, including Eli Gailes in the first quarter, Utah Jones in the second and Jay Harrill in the third.
Gailes got the Pioneers off to a good start by knocking down two 3-point shots in the first quarter, which gave the Pioneers a 15-12 lead.
Jones, playing for Cam Baker, who picked up his second foul late in the first quarter, exploded for 13 points in the second quarter. Jones started his scoring tirade by making a 3-point basket with two seconds in the first quarter, and then continued it by scoring 13 of the Pioneers' first 15 points in the second.
"Cam picks up two quick fouls and he's on the bench the entire second quarter," Pioneers coach Rob Sanders said. "That's a big chunk of your offense. Utah steps up and rises to the challenge. Without his play in the second quarter, who knows what were going into halftime like."
Jones, who converted his first two baskets in the second quarter from steals, credited his teammates for finding him open later in the period.
"I don't know. I just caught fire and started making shots," Jones said. "My teammates realized that I was hot and set my up to succeed."
Jones' 3-point basket with 2:45 left in the first half gave Watauga a 30-24 lead. The backup shooting guard finished with a team-high 22 points, grabbed three rebounds and had three steals.
"Utah stepped up big-time tonight," Baker said. "I'm real proud of him. I know he's had it in him all season and he's brought it all season. He picked a good night to step up. All of our guys know that when it's time to step up, they're going to step up for sure no matter what the situation is."
It's not like Baker was deprived of his points. Baker, who
had just two points in the first half after spending the entire second quarter
on the bench because of foul trouble, scored 18 in the second half to finish
with 20 points and eight rebounds.
Harrill added 10 points and seven rebounds, while Gailes
scored nine points and dished out four assists.
Sanders said the rigors of playing in the NWC helped his players prepare to give key contributions when needed.
"One of the things from that is how tough of a conference season we've had," Sanders said. "We had different guys fill in different roles throughout the entire year. Early on, Utah was the guy coming off the bench for us and averaging double digits. We've had Aaron Dobbins step up in his first start and go 20 points and 15 rebounds. We've had guys step up and there have been battles throughout the year. Then you go into tonight and you see where it pays off for you."
McDowell, which has a prolific scorer of its own in Raekwon Miller, fought back and trailed 32-31 at halftime.
Miller, who scored 48 points in McDowell's 111-104 win over Jamestown Ragsdale in the first round of the state tournament on Monday, did his best to keep the Titans close. Miller scored 13 of his 22 points in the first half, but had just three points in the fourth quarter when the Pioneers pulled away. McDowell actually pulled in front 38-34 with 6:45 left in the third quarter, but Watauga started to pull away from the Titans soon after.
Sanders said the same strategy the Pioneers used in their upset 75-65 victory over then No 1-ranked Freedom in February was used against Miller and the Titans.
"We went to a zone because Miller was putting on a layup clinic," Sanders said. "We had to shut him down and really go with the same mentality we had against Freedom, which is turn them into jump shooters and rebound the ball."
Matt Lambert's 3-point basket sparked a key 15-3 run -- a Miller 3-pointer was the only points the Titans scored during that stretch -- gave the Pioneers a 49-41 lead that was never seriously threatened.
"We made a run there in the third quarter," McDowell coach Brian Franklin said. "They changed their defense there and we had some trouble with it. We had some good looks, but we couldn't make those. Then they went on a run. I talked to several coached about Watauga and the one thing they said was Watauga can go on some runs."
Harrill drained the final six points of that run with two 3-point baskets. Watauga pulled away for good with a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to take a 74-54 lead with 1:26 left.
Patrick McClure added 11 points and Isaac Hillman scored 10 for McDowell, which finished the season with a 13-11 record. Miller grabbed eight rebounds for the Titans.
Miller had been a scoring machine in his three previous games before Watauga's defense slowed him down. Before Miller put 48 points on Ragsdale, he scored 43 points in a McDowell win over Enka on Feb. 18, and 36 points in a win over A.C. Reynolds on Feb. 7.
Miller averages 24.1 points per game this season.
Watauga boys 76, McDowell 62
McDowell 62 (13-11)
Henry 2 1-2 5, Franklin 0 2-2 2, Maney 1 0-0 3, Miller 7 6-8 22, McClure 4 2-2 11, Farmer 3 0-0 6, Anderson 1 0-0 3, Hillman 3 3-5 10, Clayton 0 0-0 0, Dillingham 0 0-0 0, Shepard 0 0-0 0, Martin 0 0-0 0, Lester 0 0-0 0. Totals 21 14-19 62.
Watauga 76 (19-9)
Harrill 4 0-0 10, Gailes 3 1-2 9, Andrews 1 0-0 2, Dobbins 3 2-2 8, Jones 6 8-11 22, Baker 7 5-5 20, Lambert 2 0-0 5, Richardson 0 0-0 0, Eggers 0 0-0 0, Poulos 0 0-0 0, Bryson 0 0-0 0. Totals 26 16-22 76.
McDowell 12 19 15 16 -- 62
Watauga 15 17 23 21 -- 76
3-point goals--McDowell 6 (Miller 2, Maney, McClure, Anderson, Hillman), Watauga 8 (Harrill 2, Gailes 2, Jones 2, Baker, Lambert). Rebounds--McDowell 27 (Miller 8) Watauga 40 (Baker 8). Turnovers--McDowell 9. Watuaga 8. Total fouls--McDowell 17, Watauga 17. Fouled out--None. Technical fouls--None.