The Watauga High men's basketball team nearly pulled off a huge upset Wednesday night in the semifinal round of the Northwestern 3A/4A Conference Tournament at Craft Gymnasium in Hickory. The Pioneers (10-14), who lost by 31 points in this same building back in
December, finally ran out of gas in the fourth quarter and dropped a 64-53 decision to Hickory.
A 12-0 run by the Red Tornadoes in the final period extended a 43-42 lead to 13 points with a 4:09 left to play. A conventional three-point play by Matt Mason (his only points of the game) gave Hickory (22-3) a 55-42 lead, and a guaranteed berth in the conference championship game.
The Red Tornadoes, who are 78-6 the last five years, will play Alexander Central in the finals Friday night at 8 p.m.. The Cougars advanced by beating St. Stephens 45-44 in Wednesday night's second semifinal game. Alex Ayer hit the game-winning shot on a stick back as time expired.
"We were fortunate to win this game," said Hickory coach Shawn Johnson. "We caught them off guard the first time they played us here. I was real impressed with Watauga the last time we played them in Boone (back on January 24). Coach (Rob) Sanders did a great job preparing his guys. They did a great job on the pick-and-roll. We were having a tough time adjusting in the first three quarters. But we finally figured some things out in the final period that allowed us to win the game."
But the game didn't start out that way. The Red Tornadoes, thanks to Darius Malbon who put on a shooting clinic in the opening stanza, grabbed a five-point lead in the opening stanza. Malbon buried five three-pointers in the first quarter and had six for the game. He finished with a game-high 21 points. But Hickory's hot shooting cooled down in the second period.
And the Pioneers held the Red Tornadoes to eight points in the stanza and took the a 33-31 lead at halftime. Jake Pifer's conventional three-point play with 2:47 left in the first half gave WHS a 29-28 advantage.
"Our game plan was to keep them outside," said WHS coach Rob Sanders. "We didn't want them going inside for layups and slam dunks. We wanted them to beat us from the outside. They shot very well in the first quarter, but I knew they would eventually cool off."
Jordan Walls-Davis gave Hickory a huge lift off the bench. He finished with 15 points, and 12 of those, including a pair of trifectas came in the second half. His three-ball with a little more than two minutes left in the third quarter snapped a 40-40 tie and put the Red Torndoes on top to stay.
"And that's what championship teams do," Sanders said. "They make big shots in big games. (Walls-Davis) gave us problems all night. He worked his way free and got some open looks, and he hit some big shots."
The Pioneers finally ended their fourth-quarter scoring drought with 3:20 to play on a three-point play by Pifer. But the Red Tornadoes kept pouring it on and led by as many as 18 points, 63-45, with less than a minute to play.
"Don't get me wrong, I'll take six three pointers any time," Johnson said. "But that's not always a good thing, because then the rest of the guys want to start shooting the three. And we did a lot of that in the first half. In the second half, we focused on being patient and attack the basket more. We also put more pressure on the ball defensively."
Pifer led the PIoneers with 17 points; Ben Howser finished with 12 points; Matt Proffitt had ten. But despite the loss, the Pioneers will now turn their attention towards the state playoffs, which begin next week. The pairings will be announced Saturday night.
"I am very proud, especially the seniors, the way we played tonight," Sanders said. "Now it's up to our seniors how much longer they want to keep playing. The sand is running out of the hour glass, and careers are coming to an end. We've got the state playoffs coming up next week. We'll see who we play Saturday night, and go after it."
NOTES: The Pioneers will be making their eighth playoff appearance in nine years.....The Pioneers have lost seven of their last eight games against Hickory.....Freshman Matt Lambert suffered his first loss in two years Wednesday night. His streak was stopped at 40 games with Wednesday night's loss. His team was 17-0 in middle school last year; and the WHS JV team went 22-0 this season. He played briefly in his varsity debut during Monday night's win against South Caldwell.....Hickory will play South Caldwell in the women's championship game Friday night at Craft Gymnasium beginning at 6:30 p.m.....WHS coach Rob Sanders got engaged on Valentine's Day.
HICKORY 64, WATAUGA 53
SCORE BY PERIODS 1ST 2ND 3RD 4TH TOTAL
WATAUGA............ 18 15 9 9 53
HICKORY............ 23 8 12 21 64
WHS: PIFER 17, POULOS 2, PROFFITT 10, HOWSER 12, CHASTEEN 4, KOPPENHAVER 4, BAKER 4.
HICKORY: JARRETT 7, BYRD 5, WITHERSPOON 4, CONNELLY 1, WALLS-DAVIS 15, FULLER 3, MASON 3, MALBON 21, POWELL 1, HUFFMAN 4.
HUSKIES ADVANCE TO FINALS
The Ashe County High men's basketball team advanced to the finals of the Mountain Valley 1A/2A Conference Tournament championship game Wednesday night.
The Huskies (23-2), riding a ten-game winning streak, defeated Alleghany 62-44 in the MVC semifinals in Moravian Falls. Sam Gammons led three players in double figures with 21 points; Nehemiah Stafford had 16; Zeb Richardson had ten points, 15 rebounds and two blocked shots.
The Huskies will play either Wilkes Central or Starmount in the finals Friday nigth at the Nest in Moravian Falls. Wilkes Central and Starmount play their semifinal game tonight. The Ashe County women (10-14) take on East Wilkes in the women's MVC semifinals tonight at Wilkes Central.
NORTHWESTERN 3A/4A CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT
HICKORY 64, WATAUGA 53
ALEXANDER CENTRAL 45, ST. STEPHENS 44
MOUNTAIN VALLEY 1A/2A CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT
ASHE COUNTY 62, ALLEGHANY 44