If they’re still playing basketball 100 years from now, defense will still win the big ones.
Emily Herron’s baseline jumper pulled Union Grove within a single point with four minutes remaining in the championship game of the Blount County Middle School Basketball Tournament last Thursday night at Alcoa.
The host Lady Tornadoes pitched a shutout from there, pulling clear down the stretch for a 31-22 win at Vernon Osborne Gymnasium.
Seventh-grader Tara Shields paced the champions with 10 points, including a big, third-quarter 3-pointer and 4-of-4 shooting from the foul line in the final minute. Blount County Player of the Year Kayla Newman pumped in nine points for the Lady Tornadoes (17-3), with Kolbie Goddard adding four.
Union Grove got a strong night - in more ways than one - from guard Haley Talbot, who knocked home a pair of 3s en route to finishing with 10 points to match Shields for game-high honors.
Talbot, a sweet-shooting eighth-grader, played the championship game after suffering a broken nose in the previous night’s semifinal.
Herron finished with four for the Lady Wildcats, with Kasi Knight three. It was there, in defending the athletic, 5-foot-11 Knight - a seventh-grader - where the Lady Tornadoes made the biggest gains.
Union Grove had handed Alcoa a double-digit loss only a couple of weeks before the tournament.
“We played much better defense this time,” Alcoa coach Dyran Bledsoe said. “Last game, we weren’t getting back on defense.”
Entering the championship game, the Lady Tornadoes were intent on anything but a repeat performance, Newman said.
“I was a little worried,” she said, “but I knew we would come out and play strong and play hard.”
Newman and Lady Tornado guard Bailey Sellers, with an early trey, pushed Alcoa out to a quick 6-1 lead before Talbot cut short the run with a 3 of her own. Less than half a minute later, Knight sliced through the Lady Tornado defense for a baseline bucket to even the score at 6-all after a quarter.
“I just told the girls to keep shooting because I knew (the shots) were going to fall,” Newman said.
Quiet for a half, Shields, a little under the weather for the championship game, finally began to find the range, largely, she said, “Because Mr. Bledsoe told me to shoot it.”
Madison Thompson, Hannah Tate and Goddard made it tough on the Lady Wildcats inside from there, the trio combining for three blocked shots in the opening half.
With Newman and Shields pushing the pace on offense, Alcoa opened a 15-9 lead after two quarters. Newman capped the escape with a steal and breakaway basket with 10 seconds to go in the half.
“We wanted it at a different tempo,” Union Grove coach Angela Wilson said. “In the beginning, it seemed we were too tight. The last time we played them, we did a much better job rebounding.”
The Lady Tornadoes got a pair of deep 3s from Shields and Hannah Troutt when play resumed after intermission as Alcoa opened the lead to 23-15 after three quarters. The Lady Wildcats, though, did anything but go quietly.
Talbot stroked a 3 from the left side to open the fourth, and Union Grove began to charge. The broken nose bothered her some, Talbot said, but there was no way she was missing the championship game.
“It didn’t feel good,” she said, “but I didn’t want to not play.”
Marisa Shelton quickly went to the basket for two more after the Talbot trey, and the Lady Wildcats were soon within three. Just over a minute later, Herron trimmed the deficit to a single point.
Thompson’s bucket at the three-minute mark sparked the Lady Tornadoes on defense as much as it did on offense, her layup giving Alcoa some breathing room at 25-23. Shields and Newman put it away from the free-throw line from there.
Maryville 41, Union Grove 21
The football team finished the season undefeated. With many of the same players on the basketball team, the Bulldogs wasted little time in finishing the year perfect on the hardwood as well.
A buzz-saw first quarter carried Maryville to a 24-7 lead before the Wildcats could find their footing. The Bulldogs, led by blistering opening quarter from point guard Cody Carroll, never let up, pulling clear by 30 at the half in cruising home to cap an unbeaten, 15-0 season.
“This is, overall, a good, athletic team,” Maryville coach Tony Humphrey said. “Early on, we forced a lot of turnovers and got some quick scores. They (the Wildcats) didn’t have a chance to get back in the game.”
The unblemished run equaled a perfect season turned in by the school’s football team, which finished a school-record 10-0 in winning the Smoky Mountain Athletic Conference championship last fall.
Carroll, a record-setting receiver on the football team, pumped in 12 first-quarter points, including a pair of treys, as Maryville turned the Wildcats over on numerous occasions early. Carroll didn’t tally again, but it mattered little.
John Garrett also ripped the Wildcats (15-7) for 12 points, including six in the Bulldogs breakout first quarter. Isaac Edmiston, the quarterback in football, finished with nine, tossing in a second-quarter 3-pointer as Maryville exploded to a 38-8 lead at the half. Travis Nuchols had four for the Bulldogs.
“I think they wanted it more to start with,” Union Grove coach Michael Baumann said. “Once they got hot, it was hard to stop them.”
Union Grove and Blount County Player of the Year Peyton Wall were limited to a single point in the second quarter. Wall would finish with two points on the night, with Brandon Tipton pacing the Wildcat with six.
Alcoa 45, Heritage 39
Malik Love had a big night for the Tornadoes with a game-high 18 points, including a couple of 3-pointers. Ben Sternberg added nine points and Blake Holder seven. Austin Morgan had six for Alcoa. Caleb McDonald would finish with four.
Zach Price had a hot night for the Mustangs with 13 points. Zack Wilburn fired in a pair of treys en route to finishing with 10 for Heritage. Matt Davis would finish with eight. Garrett Neubert had four.
Heritage 42, Maryville 29
Bethany Massey led a balanced Lady Mustang attack with 10 points. Abbie Burchfield added nine, Leah Thomas seven, Jordan Johnson six and Mikayla Hutsell five for Heritage.
The Lady Bulldogs got a huge night of 15 points from Leila Bangash. Dee Clark chipped in five points for Maryville, with Anna Irwin and Kristen Chandler tacking on three points each.