Trailing 48-27 to start the third quarter, the Pioneers blitzed Freedom 23-8 in the period. Cameron Baker led WHS' (9-4 overall; 0-3 NW3A/4A) second-half rally as he matched his career high with 29 points. His bucket with 3:10 left to play got WHS within four at 66-62.
But the Patriots (12-0; 3-0), who grabbed sole possession of first place in the NW3A/4A Conference by beating WHS, pulled away for good with a little less than 90 seconds to go. Khris Gardin capped off a 9-2 run with a pair of free throws that gave the Patriots a 75-64 lead.
"We were real sluggish to start the game," said WHS coach Rob Sanders. "But, thanks to the bad weather we had, we couldn't practice the last couple of days. We just didn't have our legs. But I told the guys in the locker room, this is a game we can hang our hats on. That second half rally allowed us to get back in the game. We just didn't have enough to take the lead. We just ran out of gas and they pulled away at the end."
The Patriots had three players in double figures. Gabe Logan, who had his season cut short by injury last season, paced the Patriots with a team-high 27 points. His three ball and an ensuing layup during Freedom's final run put the game out of reach.
"We just went back to basics," said Freedom coach Casey Rogers, who has beaten WHS five consecutive times. "The third quarter has been our down fall all season. We settled for the three point shot, and we stopped doing the things that got us that big lead in the first half. But Watauga is a dangerous team on offense. They have a lot of weapons, and we didn't do a very good job stopping Baker tonight. He just had his way with us offensively."
The Patriots simply dominated WHS in the first half. After Utah Jones tied the game at 2-2 with a layup early in the first quarter, the Patriots simply took over. They ran off 11 consecutive points and built a commanding 13-2 lead. Freedom led 26-11 after one and the lead eventually ballooned to 23 points in the second quarter.
"Freedom is always tough to beat on this floor," Sanders said. "They're at least 10 points better on this floor because of their mystic and their tradition. But this is a new experience for our players. We haven't been conference members with this team for a while (four years), so they were intimidated coming in. We just got off to a bad start and it hurt us in the long run."
"We came out with a lot of intensity to start the third quarter," Baker said. "All we can do is put this on ourselves, We didn't come out and play like we're capable of in the first half. It's over, we can't do anything about tonight's game. All we can do now, is go to practice (Thursday) and get ready for Friday (when Hibriten comes to town)."
The loss drops WHS into a last-place tie with South Caldwell. And it doesn't get any easier with Hibriten and Patton (next Tuesday) coming up on the schedule.
"We're still not out of it," Sanders said. "There's a lot of games left, but we've got to get that first win. It all starts there. That's why Friday's game is a must win for us. This is a tough league, an athletic league. There's no easy games. Anybody can beat anybody in this league. It's pretty well balanced, and I still have a lot of confidence in these guys."
Jeron Hemphill had 17 points for the Patriots; Gardin finished with 16 points. Jones came off the bench and pour in 14 points for the Pioneers; Jay Harrill had eight points and eight rebounds.
WHS returns home to play Hibriten Friday night. Coverage begins at 6:05 p.m,, on AM 1450, WATA and GoBlueridge.net.
NOTES: The WHS junior varsity girls lost to Freedom, 35-33; the WHS JV boys defeated Freedom, 41-35.
FREEDOM 82, WATAUGA 71
SCORE BY PERIODS 1 2 3 4 TOTAL
WATAUGA HIGH 11 16 23 21 - 71
FREEDOM HIGH 26 22 8 26 - 82
WHS: HARRILL 8 (8 REBOUNDS), EGGERS 5, GAILES 3 (5 ASSISTS), POULOS 2 (3 ASSISTS), DOBBINS 2, JONES 14 (4 REBOUNDS, 4 ASSISTS), BAKER 29 (9 REBOUNDS), LAMBERT 8. FG: 24, 3FG: 6, FT: 5-10.
FHS: J.HEMPHILL 17, BUTLER 3, T. HEMPHILL 7, GARDIN 16, WILSON 4, LOGAN 27., BRIDGES 6, MOORE 2. FG: 21, 3FG: 8, FT: 16-19.
FREEDOM GIRLS 71, WHS 44
The Watauga High girl's basketball team suffered its first loss in league play Wednesday night. The Pioneers, who have had their share of problems against Freedom over the years, went throught their share of struggles in Wednesday's match up.
The Patriots shook off the effects of a slow start, wiped out an early five-point deficit and blasted WHS 71-44 in Morganton, N.C. The loss also leaves WHS (4-9 overall; 2-1 Northwestern 3A/4A Conference) in a four-way tie for second place with Freedom, south Caldwell and St. Stephens.
"I'm not doubting our effort at all," said WHS coach Klay Anderson, "But we need someone to step up and score the basketball. Savanna (Wood) came to play tonight. She's our best player, and she carried us in the first half. But we just couldn't muster any offense in the second half of tonight's game."
Trailing 10-5, the Patriots went on an 18-point run and built and commanding 23-10 lead. Amy Rhoney, who came off the bench and poured in a ten points for the Patriots, sparked the rally.
She snapped a 10-10 tie with a pair of free throws with 1:21 to play, and from that point on the Patriots were in total control.
"I'm not worried about the score," Anderson said. "Freedom deserved to win, but my concern is offense. We need to get more of our girls to step it up offensively. I've got to have nights where three, four, five girls do great things, in their own right. Savanna can't do it alone."
But Wood nearly brought WHS all the way back. The WHS senior buried six threes in the first half. And that effort cut Freedom's 13 point lead down to seven at the break at 32-25.
A conventional three-point play by Kaelin McNeill of the Pioneers to start the second half made it 34-28, but the Patriots settled the issue as they scored eight consecutive points. And a pair of freshmen did most of the damage. Amaryah Corpening and Ariyana Williams combined for 26 points (Corpening had 15 points, Williams had 11).
"Those girls are outstanding players," Anderson said. "I was really impressed with Willaims. She can hold her own against anyone she plays against. She has some terrific moves, and she really hurt us tonight cutting to the basket."
Akiqula Mills added to WHS' second-half woes as she poured in ten of her 13 points. A three ball by Taylor Gradin and a free throw by Corpening made it 52-33. A bucket by Krissy Surratt made 62-42 and basically shut the door on WHS.
"They got us into a running game second half, and we're not that type of team," Anderson said. "We came out here and showed that we're in first place for a reason. And we didn't cave in when we fell behind in the first half. We fought our way back into the game. But we couldn't score in the third quarter. And we forced some things and made some silly turnovers. It turned into a run-and-gun game and that's not our forte."
Wood, who didn't score in the second half, finished with 18 points; Ryan Loflin and McNeill each had eight points apiece for WHS. The Pioneers haven't beaten Freedom since the 1998-99 season, and Patriots coach, Amber Fox, has never lost to WHS.
The Poineer return home to play Hibriten Friday night. Coverage begins at 6:05 p.m., on AM 1450, WATA and GoBlueridge.net.
FREEDOM 71, WATAUGA 44
SCORE BY PERIODS 1 2 3 4 TOTAL
WATAUGA HIGH 10 15 8 11 - 44
FREEDOM HIGH 16 16 14 25 - 71
WHS: MILLSAPS 2, WOOD 18, DERRICK 3, LOFLIN 8, McNEILL 8, JONES 2, FOUTZ 3. FG: 9, 3FG: 7, FT: 5-9.
FHS: CORPENING 15, WILLIAMS 11, YOMOUTI 5, MILLS 13, GARDIN 7, SURRATT 8, RHONEY 10, PEARSON 2. FG: 23, 3FG: 5, FT: 10-14.
Photo Courtesy: Utah Jones, WHS Athletics