The Fort Loudoun Middle School Braves basketball team escaped with a district win in thrilling fashion Monday night, defeating the Athens City Middle School Cougars 31-28 with the help of rebounds and late free throws.
The Braves led by as much as 13 points in the second half before the Cougars stormed back to take a 26-24 lead with 1:20 remaining. However, a pair of free throws by Sebastian Correa and Brody Thearp pushed the Braves back out front.
A final rebound and free throw from eighth-grader Zane Lawhon sealed the victory.
“I was just trying not to think too much and just wanted to hit these two shots,” Lawhon said. “I just tried not to think about it too much. I think I played OK. I could’ve scored the ball a little better. I could’ve had better passes. I was glad how my team fought in the fourth quarter.”
First-year head coach Joel Bailey was excited to avenge a loss to the Cougars from earlier this season.
“Well see, we played them at Athens, and they kind of put the pedal to the metal and showed no sympathy,” he said. “The biggest thing I kept telling these guys was we can’t show them any sympathy. A couple of days ago, I told the guys, ‘If guys go crazy, this team’s going to go crazy.’ We’ve got to make sure we stay together at all times no matter what. We win together, we lose together, we stay together. That’s what they did.”
The season has had its share of positives and negatives, and Bailey is still learning to adjust to middle school after coming from Hiwassee College as a player and assistant coach.
“It’s been up and down, it’s been a lot of growing pains,” he said. “Overall, it’s a good group of kids, and I love them. My favorite part of the day is coming in and coaching them. Again, we have our growing pains, we have our days. We have our days where we’re like, ‘OK, what sport are we playing?’ Then we have our days where we’re like, ‘OK, who is this team?’ It’s a new coach, a new system, a new way of playing, so it’s taking some getting used to, but they’re doing pretty good. I’m coming from coaching college ball, so I’m kind of expecting them to know things, but they’re sixth- and eighth-graders.”
Lawhon played under Hayden Webb the previous two seasons, but is enjoying playing under Bailey in his final year at FLMS.
“I love it, I love coach,” he said. “It’s kind of different, but I like that kind of different. He’s a little more intense. He plays different styles of the game, runs different plays and stuff like that. He’s more of a game person instead of a practice guy like Coach Webb was, so that’s kind of big for us.”
Bailey stresses consistency, but believes his team can make a run in the district tournament later this season.
“What’s crazy is when this team plays hard and under control, I think we can beat anybody,” he said. “But I also think we have the ability to be beaten by anybody. One thing I tell them is, ‘You’ve never done enough. Nobody cares, so work harder.’ I think that once we get that instilled, we can go as far as we want to, but it depends on how we are mentally. Like tonight, we had a 17-4 lead, we look back and it’s 23-23. It shows we have the ability to put teams away, but we also have the ability to open the door to let teams right back in. I’ve never been a person who can say, ‘Well, I think we can go to the second round.’ I’m trying to win it all.”