Cyclones to lock up with Longhorns

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   The Elizabethton Cyclone boys basketball team pretty much breezed through regular season play in the Watauga Conference last season.
   Except when it played Johnson County.
   After getting two tough games from the Longhorns last year, Johnson County has the full attention of EHS head coach Tony Hardin going into Tuesday night's showdown at Treadway Gym with the boys from Mountain City.
   Last season, the Cyclones won 79-58 in Mountain City during the year's first meeting, but Elizabethton was only up 52-48 going into the fourth quarter. The second time around was a real barnburner, as Johnson County led by six points in the fourth quarter before Elizabethton came back to win 60-52 at Treadway Gym.
   As Tuesday night approaches, the Longhorns look to be in better shape than they were last year by holding an 8-6 overall record and 2-1 league mark after playing a monster schedule.
   But this Elizabethton team might be Hardin's best since the 95-96 squad that defeated a nationally ranked Science Hill program twice and won the school's last district title . Elizabethton comes into this game 10-2 overall and 3-0 in the Watauga, with the two losses being to Arby's Classic winner Wheeler, Ga. and the Hilltoppers.
   The Cyclones know they are the hunted every time out, and that the Longhorns will be ready again.
   "We talk about everybody playing their best against us," Hardin said. "We're everybody's homecoming. Mountain City is a good ball team, so it should be a hard battle and a good game. I don't think we can approach this any differently. I think anybody can beat you.
   Even though the Cyclones have started out of the gate real hot, Hardin still believes his team is not playing its best basketball going into this contest.
   "We're not playing as good as we would like to be," he said. "We've lost two games to two good teams, but we've not played as well as we would like to be.
   The Cyclones and the Longhorns have played several common opponents this year. While Elizabethton routed Happy Valley, handily defeated Sullivan Central, and only lost by eight to Science Hill, the Longhorns squeaked by the Warriors, lost by 18 to the Cougars, and were blown away the 'Toppers.
   "It will be tough for us to beat them," Johnson County head coach Austin Atwood said. "We're going to have to come in and play perfect."
   As last year's two memorable games proved, you can throw out records and common opponents when these two squads get together. Johnson County seems to have things in gear after playing tough at the Knox Bearden Tournament and by defeating Hampton 64-46 Friday night in Mountain City.
   Hardin knows that previous results don't matter when these rivals meet.
   "That's why you play the games," he said. "Basketball is an exciting game. Anybody can win on a given night."
   Johnson County came into the season with three of the best players around in Judd Shoun, Matt Cornett and Tommy Short, but a strong supporting cast that includes big guys like Adam Johnson and Frank Icenhour and guard Michael Lipford have also helped the Longhorns to success so far in the 2002-2003 season.
   All the Johnson County players will have to be on fire for the Longhorns to come out on top Tuesday night.
   "We're just going to have to play mistake free basketball," Atwood said. "That's the bottom line. We hope (the Cyclones) don't play real well."
   Elizabethton comes in with several big guns, but B.J. Miller has stood out so far for the Cyclones. And everybody knows about the force Vince Redd is inside.
   Guards Lester Bailey and Walter Brown provide solid leadership in the backcourt, and Jordan Lambert can also take over a game at anytime.
   Atwood believes stopping the big guns will be key for the Longhorns.
   "We've got to try and shut Miller down, and get a body on Redd," he said.
   As for the Cyclones, they know it will be tough to stop all of Johnson County's go-to-players, but they're hoping it will be a total team effort on defense.
   "When you've got three kids that can play like they do, it's hard to go in and say stop them," Hardin said. "It's got be a total team effort. If we try to stop Cornett or another certain player, somebody else will hurt you.
   This has been a much-anticipated contest after the games last year. Atwood feels like his team actually matches up with the Cyclones better than fellow Watauga contender Sullivan Central.
   "If Central gets going hard and scoring, they're just hard to stop," he said. "Elizabethton is more half-court oriented. If you stop that first lead pass to the corner, then they try to feed it into Redd, and we play a little better like that."
   Said Hardin: "Matchups are funny. You feel like you've got a good matchup, then you might think differently once you start playing. But Johnson County is as good as anybody in our conference. We've got to play well to win."