Road to regional a narrow path in District 1-AA

By Allen LaMountain

Assistant Sports Editor
awlamountain@starhq.com

   On Saturday at Treadway Gymnasium the District 1-AA Watauga Conference held its opening contests in the girls' bracket, with the winners advancing to the regional tournament.
   All three games were each decided by a single basket -- with all coming at or near the buzzer -- with Volunteer overcoming Happy Valley 41-38, Sullivan Central finally getting past arch-rival Sullivan North 45-43 and Elizabethton squeezing past a determined Hampton squad 61-59.
   "There isn't much of a gap between the teams," commented Lady Cyclone assistant coach Harry Farthing on the eve of the tournament. "Hampton is a tough seven seed and the games should all be close."
   Indeed. The opening contest saw Central win a see-saw affair in which neither team could open more than a four-point advantage on its opponent. A putback of an errant North shot by Kristen Hughes knotted the score at 43-43 with five seconds left, but an end-to-end rush by Kristi Moody and her buzzer-beating hoop from five feet out swished through to send the Lady Cougars to the next round.
   In the closer of Saturday's triple-header the Lady Falcons trailed the Lady Warriors almost throughout the contest as Happy Valley led 23-20 at the break and extended its lead to 36-32 going into the final stanza.
   Apparently though, fatigue then set in on Happy Valley as the Lady Warriors were slowed to a snail's pace -- opening the door for Volunteer's comeback -- and when Morgan Smith canned a pair of free throws with 15 seconds remaining, it left the Warriors for dead as a pair of three-point heaves didn't fall in the closing seconds.
   The team that showed the most desire and intensity however, were the Lady Bulldogs of Hampton, who overcame a 50-34 Lady Cyclone lead and pushed EHS to the brink.
   Joy Gardner began bombarding 'Betsy with three-point shots and the young, aggressive 'Dogs never felt beaten until the final buzzer when Gardner's half-court heave fell short.
   The tournament standouts thus far include Hampton's Lacey Oliver, Heather Chambers, Lauren Pittman and Jessi Price -- along with Gardner. Of the five, Pittman, Oliver and Price are all freshmen, which means that come this time next year the Lady Bulldogs could be the team to beat as they will graduate no one from this aggressive, well-coached squad.
   Other standouts include Central's Kristi Moody, whose 21-point effort led the way to victory for the Lady Cougars. Also looking good for Central was Kayla Vaughn who pulled down 10 rebounds vs North.
   For the Falcons, senior guard Leah Johnson showed the way with 10 points and Rebecca Manis was a force off the glass with 11 boards in the Volunteer win.
   'Betsy was led by a solid team effort that had Sarah Smith's 12 points leading a well-balanced attack that saw Rikki Baughman, Brandi Forbes and Tanya Dykes each back Smith's effort with 11 points apiece. Baughman also took down 10 rebounds -- with none bigger than the offensive board she gobbled up after a Lacy Lane miss -- with the resulting putback sending EHS to the regional.
   "Rikki wasn't going to be denied in that situation," said EHS assistant coach Lori Lyons-Wilson. "I sure didn't want to give Hampton any more opportunities to beat us in overtime, so thank goodness Rikki's shot went in."
   For the girls' whose teams are through playing for the year, the standouts include Hughes for the Lady Raiders, who scored 14 points and had eight rebounds.
   Johnson County's Nikki Davidson scored 12 points in the injury-ravaged Lady Longhorns' 52-30 pig-tail loss to Hampton and Happy Valley standouts were Mandy Byrd who scored 16 in the loss to Volunteer and Brandi Dugger who scored nine, but is quite possibly the best defensive guard in the conference.
   On the boys side of the ledger Hampton fell to Unicoi County after wasting a 28-19 halftime advantage. The Blue Devils outscored Hampton 13-7 in the third period to whittle the lead to 35-32 and prevailed on Josh Hensley's late free throws.
   Standouts for Hampton included Mitchell Morton and Jacob Culler.
   On Monday, EHS played host once again as the tournament got restarted with boys' elimination contests and in the opener Sullivan North stuck with the up-and-down Volunteer Falcons through the first half.
   The third period saw a scoring drought for North that killed any chance of them advancing to the regional as Volunteer went on a 24-10 run over the third and some of the fourth periods.
   Leading the way for Volunteer was sophomore phoneme Chucky Lindholm with 23 points and 13 boards, while C.J. Minnick led the way for North with eight points. Golden Raider senior post Phillip Scarsellone injured his right knee in the fourth period and finished with six points.
   John LeSueur led a second half rally by Sullivan Central that obliterated Unicoi County after the Blue Devils had scratched its way to forge an 18-18 game by halftime.
   Central then outscored Unicoi 17-0 before a bucket by Michael Price stopped the bleeding.
   In the nightcap Johnson County advanced with a 51-40 victory over Happy Valley as Matt Cornett's 19 points led the way for the Longhorns.
   Today's matchups feature the Unicoi County Lady Blue Devils putting their top regional seed on the line at 6:30 p.m. against Sullivan Central while the 8 p.m. contest pits the Lady Cyclones against upset-minded Volunteer.
   On Wednesday, in the opener, Sullivan Central's boys will face Johnson County at 6:30 and at 8 p.m. the 'Betsy Cyclones will take on the challenge from Volunteer.