Lead, season slips away from Hampton in loss to Unicoi

By Matt Hill

   The Hampton Bulldogs have spent many nights at the Heartbreak Hotel this year with their close losses and tough injures.
   Friday night, Unicoi County gave them another free room.
   The Blue Devils made a valiant second-half comeback, then prevented Hampton's Greg Osborne from making a game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer to take a 48-45 victory in the play-in game of the District 1-AA boys basketball tournament at Treadway Gym.
   The game typified Hampton's season. When it looked like things were going its way, the tough times hit.
   Hampton has lost several games this year at the buzzer, but did get a good look at the final shot.
   Hampton had 13 seconds to tie the game, and finally got the basketball over to Osborne in the left corner. It didn't go in, and Unicoi held on for the hard-fought victory.
   "That's the third time this year it was pretty much settled on a last shot," Hampton head coach Bud Hazelwood said about the season series with Unicoi. "We got the shot we wanted."
   The dagger might have come before the final possession when Unicoi's Josh Hensley went to the foul line under pressure and made two clutch free throws to give Unicoi the three-point edge. That of course forced Hampton to attempt a three.
   "Those free-throws were huge," Unicoi County head coach John English said. "Josh has made big plays for us all year, and to step up in that situation with the season on the line, he's a senior and he stepped up and did what seniors do.
   "Neither team wanted to go home tonight. Hampton had a great effort. Coach Hazelwood has done a great job with those guys. They're a very young team, and we'll be battling them for the next couple of years."
   Hazelwood thought that a stretch near the end of the third quarter, not what happened at the end, might have cost his team a chance to advance in the tournament.
   Hampton held a 28-19 advantage at halftime, and extended its lead to 34-22 with four minutes to go in third.
   Unicoi, who had Elizabethton on the ropes before fading the night before, ended the quarter on a 10-1 run to cut the Bulldog lead down to 35-32.
   "End of the third quarter we took some questionable shots," Hazelwood said. "We took less shots in the first half and scored more points, because we were more patient."
   Unicoi finally took the lead when Michael Price hit a trey to give the Devils a 38-37 advantage with 6:37 to go. Unicoi never trailed after the four-minute mark.
   "This group just has more heart than any group I have ever seen," English said. "They were just not ready to go home. We had a rough first half, and Hampton came out and shot the ball extremely well. Second half they cooled off, and that helped. We came out very, very determined in the second half, and made the plays that we needed to make."
   Hampton should get credit for playing a strong first half that saw it outscore Unicoi 20-10 in the second quarter.
   Younger players like Jacob Culler and Jacob Moss played big roles in giving the Bulldogs the early advantage.
   Hazelwood was concerned at halftime despite the lead.
   "We've struggled at least one quarter all year," he said. "I was hoping we wouldn't. We got seven points in the third quarter."
   Michael Price topped Unicoi with 11 points, while Jonathan Grindstaff led the Blue Devils with six rebounds.
   Osborne led a balanced Hampton scoring attack with eight.
   Even though Hampton struggled after losing almost its entire team that won the District 1-AA Championship last year, Hazelwood saw a lot good effort and improvement from his squad.
   "We've improved all year long," Hazelwood said. "We've played well against some pretty tough teams at times. We've probably had four or five games where we didn't show up. The rest of the time we played hard."
   Unicoi advances to play Sullivan Central on Monday.