The Pioneers will play the No.1 seed in the West, Greensboro Page, on the road Friday night. The Pirates (26-2) advanced to the Sectional Finals by knocking off Greensboro-Dudley, a team that handed Page one of its two losses this season, 77-56 Wednesday night.
And Jones played a huge role in getting WHS there. The WHS junior came off the bench and nailed a three to end the first quarter that put the Pioneers on top, 15-12. And with two of WHS' best players---Cameron Baker was on the bench with two quick fouls and Jay Harrill was held to just two points in the first half---Jones errupted for 13 of his game-high 22 points in the second quarter as the Pioneers built a 32-31 hafltime ead.
"That was huge for them," said McDowell coach Brian Franklin. "With (Baker), one of their best players on the bench in foul trouble, and if (Jones) doesn't play like that, we have a chance to put together a run of our own. He made huge shots there."
"I just caught fire in the second quarter," Jones said. "Tonight we came out, we knew we had to get past this team. We just came out with a lot of intensity. We were real flat against Alexander Central. Tonight we played real hard. We're playing with a lot of confidence right now. I don't care where we play Friday night. We're ready to shock the world."
But the Titans (13-11) came charging out of the gate to start the second half. Thanks to Patrick McClure, who poured in five points to start the third quarter, McDowell went on a 7-2 and grabbed a short-lived 38-34 lead. But from that point on, the Pioneers, who switched defenses and went to a 1-2-2 zone, took control.
The Pioneers went on a 15-3 run and never trailed again. Consecutive threes by Harrill, who rediscovered his scoring touch in the second half, gave WHS a 49-41 lead with 3:50 left in the third quarter. The lead eventually ballooned to 11 points moments later on a three by Baker.
"It was tight the whole game," said WHS coach Rob Sanders. "We didn't come out flat like we did against Alexander Central. Jones stepped it up and put us on his back. But we did what we've done all year. When we've had problems stopping people from going to the hole this year, we've gone to that zone. It forced (McDowell) to become jump shooters. We did a real good job on the boards, and we were able to pull out a lead."
That zone has been an effective weapon for the Pioneers this season. It produced wins against Freedom (which was undefeated and ranked No.1 in the state in Class 3A at the time) and Hickory (their first road win against the Red Tornadoes in 25 years). It also put the clamps on McDowell's leading scorer, Raekwon Miller, Wednesday night.
Miller, who was averaging 42.3 points-per-game in his last four outings (he poured in 48 in Monday's playoff opener against Jamestown-Ragsdale), was limited to 22 points.
"That zone really gave us problems," Franklin said. "We went through a dry spell. We just couldn't score. We scored something like four points in a five minute stretch. We knew about their zone. It didn't surprise us. We just didn't handle it very well. We're disappointed we lost, but we lost to a very good team."
WHS eventually put the game away in the fourth quarter. A three ball by Baker, who scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half, made it 65-43 with 4:08 left to play; the lead eventually grew to 20 points with 1:26 to go.
Baker also had eight rebounds, Harrill finished with ten points, seven boards and four assists, and Eli Gailes, who battled foul trouble in the second half, finished with nine points and four assists. McClure finished with 11 points and Isaac Hillman had ten for the Titans. It was also WHS' first win against McDowell since the 2006-07 season.
"Cameron is our voice in the locker room," Sanders said. "He's on a mission like the rest of this team. These guys want to play in Greensboro, and I'm not talking about going to Page Friday night. They want to make it to regionals next week. This group is determined to get there. They're playing with an attitude right now."
The Pioneers have split their last two meetings with the Pirates. Ironically, the Pioneers beat Page in the opening-round of the state playoffs the last time they reached the Sweet 16 in 2009-10.
"And I really felt we should have beaten them down there (in a second-round playoff loss in 2007-08)," Sanders said. "I really felt we were the better team in that match up. But that was then and this is now. They're the top seed, and we have nothing to lose going in. But I like our chances. We're playing our best basketball at the right time."
"Utah stepped up big time tonight," Baker said. "He's had it in him all season, and he broke through tonight. We're playing with a lot of hustle. Coach lit a fire under us at halftime, and we took over in the second half. We're confident right now. I ready for Friday night. We're going out there, and we're going to give it everything we got."
Friday's game at Page will air on AM 1450, WATA and GoBlueridge.net at a time to be announced.
NOTES: Athletic Director Tom Wright led the WHS girls to regional in 1996-97. The Pioneers lost in the opening-round at Hickory, ironically, against Greensboro-Page....The late Carter Lentz led the WHS boys to regionals in 1971.
WATAUGA 76, McDOWELL 62
SCORE BY PERIODS 1 2 3 4 TOTAL
McDOWELL HIGH 12 19 15 16 - 62
WATAUGA HIGH 15 17 23 21 - 76
MHS: HENRY 5, FRANKLIN 2, MANLEY 3, MILLER 22, McCLURE 11, FARMER 6, ANDERSON 3, HILLMAN 10. FG: 15, 3FG: 6, FT: 14-19.
WHS: HARRILL 10 (7 REBOUNDS, 4 ASSISTS), GAILES 9 (4ASSISTS), ANDREWS 2, DOBBINS 8 (4 REBOUNDS, 3 ASSISTS), JONES 22 (3 REBOUNDS, 2 STEALS), BAKER 20 (8 REBOUNDS), LAMBERT 5. FG: 18, 3FG: 8, FT: 16-21.
NORTHWESTERN 3A/4A CONFERENCE
MOUNT TABOR 50, SOUTH CALDWELL 30
HICKORY 76, HICKORY RIDGE 50
FREEDOM 59, LEDFORD 58
WATAUGA 76, McDOWELL 62
FREEDOM 86, HICKORY 76
AVERY 73, CHEROKEE 59
No.8 ERWIN (16-6) @ No.1 HICKORY (26-0)
No.13 SOUTH ROWAN (18-9) @ No.12 FREEDOM (20-8)
No.8 WATAUGA (19-9) @ No.1 GREENSBORO-PAGE (26-2)
No.11 NORTH BUMCOMBE (20-4) @ No.3 FREEDOM (27-1)
No.3 ROBBINSVILLE (24-4) @ No.2 AVERY (24-4)
Photo Courtesy: Utah Jones, WHS Athletics