Warriors surge past Cyclones

Photo by Kristen Luther
Chris Rutledge jumps up to score a Warrior bucket.

By Jeff Birchfield

   Even Nostradamus would have a hard time predicting Watauga Conference winners this season.
   Happy Valley falls to Elizabethton earlier in the season. Add in the team plays what head coach Charlie Bayless described as the two worst games of the season last Thursday and Friday. Meanwhile, Elizabethton's most recent outing was an impressive win over league leading Sullivan Central.
   Only in the topsy-turvy world of the Watauga Conference could it make perfect sense that the Warriors went to Elizabethton and beat the Cyclones 69-55 Tuesday night.
   "This conference is a close one," said Bayless. "Nobody is heads and shoulders over anybody. This is the most competitive I can ever remember."
   A reason for the Warrior success was the close proximity of shots at the goal.
   "I thought we attacked the goal pretty good and got some good shots," said Bayless. "We had 12 assists. When Happy Valley gets 12 assists, somebody's shooting open shots. It's not like college where they kick the ball out to the wing and consider it an assist. We had 12 assists and they were shots under the basket."
   Happy Valley led 10-6 at the end of one quarter. The Warriors were up by only four points in the second, when Chris Rutledge gave them a little breathing room with four straight scores, three of them breakaway lay-ups.
   "We told everybody to pick it up and play with our heads," said Rutledge, who scored 16 points. "We kept our heads into it and came out with the win. We lost some games earlier and got our heads down."
   After a Drew Davis bank shot put HV up 24-16, Lester Bailey and Charles Peters scored baskets for EHS. The Warriors got a little distance again when Whaley stole a pass with four seconds left and hit a jumper at the buzzer. The halftime score read 28-20 in favor of HV.
   The third quarter saw Happy Valley outscore the Cyclones 17-8. John Bulla hit a basket early in the fourth as the Warriors had created distance with a 19-point lead.
   Elizabethon clawed its way back in the game with a 14-2 run. Three-point shots by Derrick Nave and J.C. Atkinson as well as baskets by Brandon Blevins and Adam Turley pulled them within seven.
   Andrew Bowman's free throws started a flourish of late HV points. Despite two more treys by Nave and one by Bailey, the Cyclones were never able to get closer than nine points the rest of the game.
   "I think they and Central are the best teams personnel-wise in the league," said EHS coach Tony Hardin. "What I saw tonight, they are playing better. I give my kids a lot of credit for the heart they played with late, but we've got to come out a little more determined early in the game."
   The Cyclones rushing shots and allowing rebounds off free throws irked their coach.
   "We have to get better at decision-making on the offensive end," said Hardin. "We will get the pass a second late or a guy will be open and we will miss him. We have to get better at that.
   "We did a terrible job on the boards. Four times, they got rebounds off of a free throw and that's very frustrating. The bottom line is we have to get back in the gym tomorrow and try to get a little better."
   For HV, Whaley tied Rutledge's team-high total with 16 points.
   "We got out of control when we tried to run against Sullivan North," said Whaley about the Warriors' loss in the game prior to this one. "Tonight we didn't run it as hard. We still wanted to run it, but we wanted to be smart about it."
   For Whaley, he was adjusting to a new role with the team.
   "Coach placed me a little bit on the wing with Alex in the middle, " said Whaley, who normally posts up inside. "It was kind of odd for me, but I had to do what was best for the team. You have to do what you have to."
   Carroll was a force inside as the center had three tip-in baskets included in a 13-point effort. Todd Caldwell with eight points and Bowman with six were the other leading scorers for HV.
   Nave headed the EHS scoring column with 15 points. Peters and Bailey each posted 13 points apiece, while Turley added seven.
   "We got behind in the second half and had to depend on the three-pointer," said Peters, who scored all six Cyclone points on inside baskets in the first quarter. "We were just trying to work the ball around. They (HV) did a pretty good job inside. Carroll and Whaley are pretty tough players down low."
   Playing in the Watauga Conference this season has been different for the Cyclones, who went undefeated in regular season action their first two years in the league.
   "The conference is nothing like it was last year when you had two pretty dominant teams," said Peters. "This year's it is well-balanced and anybody can beat anybody on a given night. You better to be prepared to play every night."
   Happy Valley, which hosts Johnson County on Friday night, moved back in the league title fight with a 5-4 conference record to go along with a 9-8 overall record.
   Elizabethon, which will face Sullivan North on Friday, is also 5-4 in league games and stands at 10-9 overall.