Lady Cyclones break grip of Unicoi County

By Jeff Birchfield

   BLOUNTVILLE -- For the Elizabethton Lady Cyclones, the third time was the charm.
   In their third meeting of the season against Unicoi County and the third straight year of going to the district finals, the Lady Cyclones finally came out on top with a 35-32 District 1-AA championship win. 
   "We played great defense tonight," said EHS head coach Mike Wilson about the championship-game win. "Unicoi County, they played great defense too. They played the matchup zone like we played and it was hard to score against it.
   "As opposed to the last few times we played them, when they made the big plays late, we made the big plays tonight. They didn't get too many good looks at the basket. We played good defense."
   Rikki Baughman put up a 19-point, 13-rebound, five-assist effort to lead the Lady Cyclones on offense. It surprised no one when she earned tournament Most Valuable Player honors.
   "Every single one of us, we all wanted to win this game so bad," stated Baughman. "We all pulled together. After we lost them in Erwin, we wanted it so much more tonight.
   "We all just came together and I'm glad that we won. We all played our best tonight. Playing against them makes us play better."
   Elizabethton had control most of the first half as its 2-3 matchup zone held Unicoi County to 10 points. At halftime, the scoreboard read 17-10 in favor of EHS.
   After seeing Erwin close to one early in the third, the Cyclones outscored them 11-5 to lead 28-21 going into the final stanza.
   Cameron Crapps hit a free throw with 5:45 left to give EHS its biggest lead of eight points, 31-23. Next came a furious Unicoi County rally, with Meghan Headley's basket at 2:14 tying the game 32-32.
   Michaela Pietrowski hit one free throw with 41 seconds left for a 33-32 Elizabethton lead. With the door still open, the Lady Devils came down with a look at the basket, but Laci Hensley's shot missed with seven seconds left.
   Valnessha Redd grabbed the rebound for EHS and was fouled. She converted on two shots at the line with six seconds left and a 35-32 Cyclone lead. Hali Sparks launched a trey at the buzzer for the Devils, but the shot bounced off the front of the rim.
   "I felt like we could win it all the way down to the end," said Unicoi head coach Glenn Fisher. "We have fighters on our basketball team and I don't think any quit on our basketball team.
   "We would have loved to have made those shots at the end, but that's the nature of the game. Throughout the course of the game, you're going to miss some close shots. It's definitely disappointing, but we have character and I feel like we can bounce back."
   Missing from the action was Lady Devil post player Elizabeth Weaver, who suffered a severe ankle sprain against Happy Valley. It's still unknown whether she can play in the upcoming regional tournament.
   Her usual frontcourt partner, Sparks, led Unicoi in scoring with 11 points. Headley contributed eight, with Amber Stevens adding seven and Amber Kerns adding six.
   Tanya Dykes with five and Whitney Bishop with four were the next highest EHS scorers behind Baughman. Brandi Forbes and Redd each scored two points, with Crapps, Pietrowski and Victoria Hopson all having a single point.
   It marked the first win for Elizabethton over Unicoi County since 1995 and the school's first district title in 15 years, when they were still competing at the 1-AAA level.
   Both teams now advance to regional competition, but the Lady Cyclones (21-7) did take some time to savor this win over a UCHS team that fell to 25-4.
   "This is big -- we hadn't won a district championship since 1989," Wilson explained. "We've been here three years in a row to the finals. When you don't win it, nobody gives you credit. I didn't want to go 0-for-3. I didn't want the hat trick. I just wanted to get this win."
   (Boys Championship)
   Sullivan Central 65
   Volunteer 52
   Jumping out to a 7-0 lead that had ballooned to 22-5 at the end of one quarter, tournament host Central never trailed against Volunteer.
   Joe Brown was responsible for much of that early Central cushion draining four treys in the first quarter.
   "Coach (Tony) Vaughn encouraged me to shoot a lot," said Brown. "He knows I can knock it down. I have to thank him for keeping on pushing me this year. Tonight we had a real desire to play and we played hard."
   The Cougars led 30-22 at the half before a 10-3 run had them 15 points in front midway through the third.
   Volunteer threatened at the end of the third, trailing 46-40 after Charles Lindholm's block of a Matt Dunford shot and basket at the other end.
   The final quarter saw Dunford use his muscle inside to push the Cougars back out to a 63-43 lead before three late baskets by Lindholm made the score a little more respectable.
   Dunford led Central (21-10) with 25 points and Brown added 19. Lindholm topped the Falcons (20-10) with 30 points.
   "Joe got us started early with those threes and Dunford played well throughout the game," said Central head coach Tony Vaughn. "Tyler Harvey had some of the best assists we've had all year. It was a great win, but we can't live on this. We play to advance in the regionals starting Monday."