The girls’ game was over fairly early.
Player of the year Tara Shields pumped in a game-high 15 points, and Alcoa clamped down defensively in the second and third quarters to defeat Heritage going away, 41-15, in the finals of the Blount County Middle School Tournament Monday night at Carpenters Middle.
For the boys’ game that followed, you needed a stopwatch to track the possessions.
Four-time defending champion Maryville pressed after made baskets, trapped in the halfcourt and pushed the fast break at every opportunity. Unlike the regular season meeting between the two schools, a Bulldog win, this time Alcoa was ready.
Brenden Teeter beat the Bulldogs to the backdoor for a game-best 21 points on soaring drives to the basket, and the Tornadoes completed the championship sweep by holding off their rivals, 47-36, in a game as close as six points with two minutes remaining.
Alcoa got nine points from Blake Holder and five from Matthew McClurg, including the Tornadoes’ only 3-pointer, in denying the Bulldogs a fifth straight title. McClurg’s twin brother, Mitchell, added four points.
The Bulldogs saw middle school player of the year Bryce Miller and Jake Headrick, three treys, pump in nine points each, with Jaylen Burgess and Tyler Vaught going for seven each. Vaught sank his lone 3-pointer of the night from so deep you half wondered if he was using GPS to locate the basket.
The Tornadoes overcame it all with heady play from guards Izzy Gilbert and Caleb Woody to break the Maryville pressure. Once in the halfcourt, Blake Holder fed Teeter consistently from the high post to beat the Bulldog zone trap.
“We’ve run it a little bit this year,” Alcoa coach Keith Stephens said. “If Teeters gets a step on people, I don’t think anyone is going to catch him.”
Holder made sure of it, Teeter said.
“We’ve been doing that (the high-low feed) a lot,” he said. “When (the Bulldogs) scooted up, they were playing so close so Blake just passed it down.”
The pace was at full gas from the opening tip. The Tornadoes sprinted to an 8-2 lead before the Bulldogs began to claw back. With every Alcoa made basket, Maryville raced to the other end for an answering bucket with an inbounds’ pass.
The Tornadoes held a 10-4 lead after a quarter. That’s when Teeter went to work.
The long Tornado center ran off 10 consecutive points as Alcoa edged clear to extend the advantage to 20-12 with two minutes to play in the half. It was 22-16 Tornadoes at the break.
Full-court pressure had worked well against their rivals in the previous meeting, Maryville coach Tony Humphrey said.
“They (the Tornadoes) handled it much better this time,” he said. “They’ve improved a lot since this year has gone on.”
Mitchell McClure looked as if he’d given his team an all-important, momentum-shifting 3 with 2:36 to play in the third, only to see the Bulldogs strike swiftly with a pair of treys of their own to pull back within 33-29 after three quarters.
The decisive stretch came midway through the fourth, the Tornadoes taking advantage of a fatiguing Bulldog team to hold Maryville scoreless for nearly three minutes. The Alcoa lead was 11 with just over two minutes left, a last Bulldog flurry not enough this time to close the gap.
Lady Tornadoes 41, Heritage Lady Mustangs 15
Too bad Alcoa isn’t one of those school systems where eighth-graders are eligible for varsity play at the high school. Shields, her Alcoa Middle coach believes, is ready now.
“She works at it. She plays year round,” Lady Tornado assistant coach Sue Thomas Martin, a former Tennessee Lady Vol, said. “She’s a great athlete, and she can pull it up pretty quick. I think she can go as far as she wants.”
The seventh-grader and Blount County Middle School Player of the Year swished a 3-pointer from the head of the key to open the game then settled largely into a playmaking role. While Shields would continue to land timely baskets through the second and third quarters, that opening salvo was really all the Lady Tornadoes (17-2) needed.
“They were off in the first quarter,” Shields said. “I was just trying to get the rebound and do the fast break.”
The Lady Mustangs had no choice but to focus their defense on Shields the rest of the way. The rest of the Alcoa roster, led by eight points from Abby Cupp and seven from Hannah Trout, picked up the slack.
It was enough to push the Lady Tornadoes out to a 20-8 lead at the half. A dominating defensive presence by Hannah Tate and Cupp around the basket held Heritage scoreless from the 4:17 mark of the second quarter until four minutes remained in the third.
“Basically, when we switched to a 2-3 zone, they (the Lady Mustangs) had a hard time scoring,” Alcoa coach Dyron Bledsoe said.
The idea was to limit the Lady Mustangs underneath and “not let them get the rebound,” Cupp said.
“I thought I did a pretty good job on defense and had a bunch of steals and rebounds and just kicked it out to the guards,” Tate said.
By the time Lady Mustang guard Leah Thomas put back a rebound with four minutes left in the third, the deficit was 33-8 and a fourth consecutive Blount County championship for the Lady Tornadoes was all but in the books.
Alcoa’s only championship loss the last six years came to the Torie Vaught-led Lady Bulldogs five years ago.
Thomas, the Heritage point guard, finished with a team-best six points, with Abbey McGuire adding five, as Alcoa’s ability to deny the Lady Mustangs the post made all the difference.