Watauga boys upset Freedom
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
Watauga's boys' basketball team showed signs it could challenge No. 1 Freedom the first time the teams played this season.
Watauga proved Friday night that it could beat Freedom. The Pioneers took an early lead on Freedom at Lentz-Eggers Gym and held it through their 75-65 upset victory over the visiting Patriots, who are ranked No. 1 in 3-A by ncpreps.com.
The win allowed Watauga (13-7, 4-6 NWC) to avenge an 82-71 loss at Freedom when the Pioneers fell behind by 23 points, rallied to within four points in the second half, but could not take the lead.
Freedom's chance at a perfect season ended, leaving the Patriots with a 17-1 overall record, 8-1 in the Northwestern Conference. Freedom's lead over Hickory (8-8, 7-2) in the NWC standings shrunk to a single game.
The teams play on Feb. 4 at Hickory.
Watauga coach Rob Sanders said his Pioneers believe they can beat anybody in the NWC if they can put together a performance such as the one they had Friday.
"When you go through a season, and everybody can say it, but this team believes that every game they've lost, they should have won," Sanders said. "They had chances to win and had they had played their best basketball, they would have won. When you go up against a team like Freedom and they're No. 1 in the state in 3-A and No. 1 in the league, and you show up finally and play a great game against a great team, it validates that belief."
"It's a good feeling," Watauga's Cam Baker said. "It was a hard fought game and it just came down to the end. At the end, we were clicking, so we got it and I'm just thankful for the coaching staff and the guys on my team."
Sanders knew the Pioneers had to make shots not only to score points, but also to slow down Freedom's devastating transition game. When Watauga started to make shots in a first half, they outscored Freedom 23-11 in the second quarter to take a 37-23 halftime lead.
It didn't hurt that Watauga's sharpshooting guard Jay Harrill found his shot in the second quarter. Watauga's leading scorer during the season opened the second quarter with a 3-point basket, and didn't let up until he had scored 15 of the Pioneers' 23 points in the period.
Harrill ended up scoring 32 points for the Pioneers, 21 of them on seven 3-pointers. He also converted all seven of his foul shots during the game.
"In the second quarter, I hit that first one and (the defender) hit me pretty hard after I shot it and it went in," Harrill said. "I was like, 'I might be on.' I hit that second one and I missed a couple, but I rushed them a bit. Everybody on the team said keep shooting, so I did and luckily, they went in tonight."
Harrill's outside shooting, and Watauga's overall shot-making, allowed the Pioneers to set up a half-court defense that proved to be effective in stopping the Patriots' offense and not letting Freedom to get out on the fast break. Watauga finished with 10 3-point baskets and three players score in double figures.
"They made shots tonight and you got to give them credit for making shots," Freedom coach Casey Rogers said. "You've got to give us credit for not defending. I thought we executed our game plan and out scoring report very poorly and that's on me."
Once Watauga got Freedom out of its transition game, the Pioneers used a 3-2 zone to make the Patriots shoot jump shots from the outside.
"We went to a zone primarily because down there we had a lot of success with the zone," Sanders said. "The whole point was to stop their dribble penetration. (At Freedom), they were putting the whole layup drill on us. We said, 'Let's turn them into jump shooters.' A 3-2 zone sets us up to be rebounders against the jump shot."
A Harrill 3-point basket was part of a 6-1 run at the start of the third quarter that gave the Pioneers a 43-24 lead, their largest of the game. Freedom finally counterpunched with a 9-0 run of its own by using a full-court zone press to force three straight turnovers that all led to points. Gabe Logan's layup pulled the Patriots to 43-33 with 4:24 left in the third.
Freedom eventually closed Watauga's lead to 63-60 with 3:15 after Jeron Hemphill tapped in his own missed shot.
"When we were in at halftime, we knew we had to come out like it was 0-0," Harrill said. "What did we have for a lead at halftime? Fourteen? That's nothing. They can easily do that in three minutes, so we had to survive their run in the end."
Watauga's foul shooting, which was spotty during the third quarter, came through down the stretch of the game. The Pioneers made 8-of-9 foul shots in the final 3:08 of the game, and got a stickback from Cam Baker with 1:03 left to re-establish a 73-60 lead.
"We struggled with their zone press instead of their man pressure," Sanders said. "When they put (Hemphill) up top in that zone press, he is very tall and he's very lanky and both of our point guards are not, so it's very easy for them to get swallowed up. I basically told Eli (Gailes) to attack it. I told him, 'You've got to use your speed to get past that big guy and then use our guys on the wings once we get half court.'"
Baker added 11 points, including a dunk in the second quarter after taking a pass from Gailes, who stole the ball on Freedom's previous possession. Gailes dished out 12 assists and scored four points, all from the foul line.
Utah Jones added 13 points and T.J. Poulos scored eight points. Both players came off the bench.
Chris Burgess led Freedom in scoring with 18 points. Burgess made four 3-point baskets, but also missed two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter that were taken from NBA range. Logan scored 15 points, Hemphill scored 13 and Austin Baker scored 10.
Watauga plays at Hibriten on Tuesday.
Watauga boys 75, Freedom 65
Freedom (17-1, 8-1)
J. Hemphill 5 3-4 13, Baker 3 1-2 10, T. Hemphill 2 0-0 4, Gardin 0 2-4 2, Wilson 1 102-3, Logan 7 1-3 15, Bridges 6 2-2 18, Moore 0 0-0 0, Wadefield 0 0-0 0. Totals 24 10-17 65.
Watauga (13-5, 4-5)
Harrill 9 7-7 32, Eggers 1 0-0 3, Gailes 0 4-5 4, Poulos 3 2-4 8, Dobbins 2 0-0 4, Jones 3 5-6 13, Baker 5 1-7 11, Lambert 0 0-0 0. Totals 23 19-29 75.
Freedom 12 11 19 23 -- 65
Watauga 14 23 14 24 -- 75
3-point goals--Freedom 78 (Bridges 4, Baker 3), Watauga 10 (Harrill 7, Jones 2, Eggers). Total fouls--Freedom 21, Watauga 16. Fouled out--Gardin. Technical fouls--None.