Cougars too strong for Johnson County

By Matt Hill

   On paper, Johnson County and Sullivan Central look like evenly-matched teams.
   When the final score was written down on Thursday night, the markings told a different tale.
   The Cougars broke open a close game in the second half to take an easy 70-39 win over the Longhorns in the semifinals of the District 1-AA boys tournament at Treadway Gym.
   The loss was Johnson County's fifth straight against the Cougars since Central moved down to Class AA during the 2001-2002 school year.
   This was the two versus three matchup, but the Cougars played like a No. 1 seed in the second half of this contest.
   "I think our boys are a little intimidated by them," Johnson County head coach Austin Atwood said. "I don't know why. They've won the last five or six in a row against us. I don't know what it is. We've got just as good of athletes, but our seniors just didn't step up and theirs did."
   It looked early on like the Cougar jinx was finally going to be broken.
   Propelled by some early baskets and key rebounds by Matt Cornett, the Longhorns led 16-12 with 7:18 to go in the second quarter.
   Then came the tidal wave.
   The Cougars got hot from outside during the rest of the quarter, and some increased defensive intensity led to a 15-4 run to close the frame.
   Central led 27-20 at halftime, then continued its hot shooting from outside in the third quarter to put the game out of reach,
   A 23-7 third quarter spurt put the Cougars ahead 50-27 after the period, and Central extended its lead in the fourth with the Longhorn starters on the bench.
   Central finished the night 10-of-16 from three-point range, compared to 3-of-13 for Johnson County.
   Atwood thought the outside shooting by Central was tough to overcome.
   "We went into a triangle and two, and we prevented it in the first half," Atwood said. "First of the third quarter, we never located the two shooters."
   It was a balanced effort by the Cougars, as 11 different players scored for Sullivan Central.
   "I had a whole lot of kids step up tonight," Sullivan Central head coach Tony Vaughn said. "I thought the second half was the key. I thought our intensity picked up. I thought Josh O'Dell and Matt Dunford really stepped up their games for us."
   John LeSueur topped the Cougars with 18 points, while Judd Shoun and Cornett had 10 and nine, respectively, to lead the Longhorns.
   With the Longhorns struggling right now, Atwood is hoping to use Friday's consolation game with Volunteer to get his team ready for the District Tournament.
   As far as it being a must-win situation, Atwood doesn't think so.
   "That game is not pivotal," he said. "We would love to start playing better. This game was pivotal. You win this game, you're going to get a good draw in the Region."
   The Cougars advance to play Elizabethton in the championship at 8 p.m. on Friday night. Vaughn also doesn't seem to see it as a must-win.
   "I would like to play them three more times," said Vaughn, whose team has lost three games to the Cyclones this season. "I would like to play them Friday, then the following week, and then on March 22. It means both of us have been successful."
   *Two Johnson County basketball players were recently named Scholar Athletes of the Week by WJHL-TV. Adam Johnson and Matt Cornett have each earned the honor, and Cornett will be featured during the 5:30 sports segment this afternoon.