The right guy hit the shot.
For much of the opening half, Gatlinburg-Pittman had put on a clinic. The Highlanders opened the Region 2AA quarterfinal last Saturday at Alcoa on a 9-0 run. The lead ballooned to 15 before Alcoa could trim it to 11 at the half.
Slowly, basket by basket, the Tornadoes closed the gap.
“They kept hitting big shots, but our guys never backed down,” Alcoa coach Micah Marsh said. “I told our guys, ‘It’s a possession game, one possession at a time.’”
With four minutes remaining, senior Chaz Barnes tipped in a Vanderbilt Hambrick miss to give the Tornadoes their first lead of the night at 51-50. The student section behind the Alcoa bench went wild in celebration.
Four minutes later, Barnes would really give them something to cheer about.
Taking a feed from Hambrick in the left corner, Barnes skied to hit the shot all high school basketball players dream of, his 3-pointer with five seconds left lifting Alcoa to a truly stirring, 64-61 win.
The Tornadoes have had several players enjoy big nights this season, but, on this stage, no one was more fitting than Barnes, Marsh said.
“My only senior hit the game-winning shot,” he said.
The football team’s recent run of six consecutive state championships withstanding, Alcoa is still viewed by many as a basketball school whose passions run deep. That Barnes is this season’s lone senior is indicative of some lean times of late. That he’s there, that it was him that hit the shot, says much about a program intent on battling back. A look at the young team that helped make Saturday’s rally happen says it may not be long before it gets there.
Barnes led all scorers on the night with 15 points, but he had plenty of supporting firepower. Junior Darrell Warren finished with 14 points, district tournament most valuable player Tre Tate 14, including a pair of 3-pointers. Tate is a sophomore.
Junior Steven Isom, sophomore Gabe Dando and freshman Kenny Dean had seven each for the Tornadoes, with Dean collecting four steals. Hambrick had a big night with five assists, adding four steals as well.
An elimination game is often tough on a young team, and, early on for the Tornadoes, it showed.
“To be honest, our guys were a little nervous,” Marsh said. “Midway through the second quarter, we started beating that zone a little with the dribble penetration.”
When it all came together with a late, fourth-quarter push, it was really something to watch.
“Coach told us at halftime, ‘This is it,’” Barnes said. “‘Either you win or you go home.’”
There was no shaking the Tornadoes once they’d caught up. The Highlanders took a two-point lead with two minutes left. Hambrick answered in seconds with a runner in the lane for Alcoa.
Gatlinburg-Pittman opened the lead to 59-56 with a 3-pointer with 1:26 remaining. The Tornadoes responded quickly with a couple of free throws from Tate, a layup from Barnes and another free toss from Warren to retake the lead at 61-59 with 55 seconds to play.
Gatlinburg-Pittman answered one last time with a layup at the 19-second mark, setting the stage for Barnes and the big shot. When Hambrick slipped past the Highlander defense on a drive into the lane, the learning was complete.
He knew they’d leave Barnes to cut him off, Hambrick said.
“He’d been out there all night,” he said. “I just had to get it to him. I had to come in a little bit and pass it out to him. I knew he would hit it.”
So did Marsh.
Perhaps the night’s most telling sequence took place in those final 19 seconds. Marsh and assistant coach Joel Kirk didn’t take a timeout after Gatlinburg-Pittman pulled even.
“He just wanted us to make a play and not go into another overtime because (the Highlanders) were dangerous,” Barnes said.
Not allowing the Highlanders to gather themselves defensively, after such a big basket, was part of the strategy, Marsh said.
“I kind of feel like if you’ve got the ball, you’re in control,” he said. “They’re on defense; our guys are in the flow, running up and down, and I elected to play. He (Barnes) let it go and never thought twice about it.”
They’d coached, prodded and encouraged the Tornadoes to continue to battle throughout, Kirk said, much as had been the case over the course of the season. This team was ready now. The game was theirs to win or lose.
“We talked about it all year,” Kirk said. “We like them to learn to play through stuff. We want our guys to fight through it. They showed a lot of fight tonight. We told them at halftime, ‘You’re going to have to fight.’”
That, Marsh said, is what made Barnes’ game-winning basket so special.
“Talk about kids fighting,” he said. “That’s one of the best performances I’ve ever been a part of.”
The Tornado region semifinal with Carter was scheduled for Wednesday evening, after Blount Today had gone to press.