Despite downpours of rain and hazardous conditions Monday night, fans packed into the Sweetwater High School gymnasium to watch two longtime rivals battle for seeding position in the District 5-2A tournament.
Sweetwater and Loudon high schools went back and forth in the first half, but the second half belonged to the Wildcats, and they ran away with a 66-53 victory over the Redskins.
“I felt like we lacked an inside presence, part of that is (Tyler) Whitfield is sick and had a fever, and their big boy had a pretty good night,” Josh Graves, LHS head boys basketball coach, said. “When we finally focused on the personnel like we were supposed to, he wasn’t as effective, but when we let him get to his right hand, he was. That was the difference — we played small.”
The Redskins trailed by seven in the first quarter before storming back to regain a one-point lead in the second quarter. Sweetwater then seized momentum and the lead heading into halftime thanks to a shot at the buzzer.
The Wildcats fired out of the gates in the third quarter and dropped 21 points, while holding Loudon to 10.
“We had to play too much man. We’ve proven that we have to play some zone, and they’re too good off the drive for us to play that much man-to-man,” Graves said. “We really needed our big to get in our Syracuse 2-3 look. We just couldn’t get there tonight. It was one of those nights and if you play zone ... you can’t play zone when you’re behind, and so we were behind most of the night.”
Junior guard Donovan Blankenship scored four of his six three-pointers in the second half to help the Redskins cut the deficit. He led the team with 26 points.
“I felt like I hit a few threes, but I also missed a lot,” Blankenship said. “We couldn’t really get a whole lot of open shots and they really guarded the ball a lot. That just came when the game came, that wasn’t the game plan or anything. I just noticed it needed to be done, so I just started shooting and they were falling.”
The Redskins dropped a heartbreaking 65-60 loss Friday at Kingston High School. Graves continues to emphasize the positives, including Blankenship’s progression as a dynamic point guard.
“Man, that kid’s so tough ... a kid from Kingston, one of their players, told me, ‘Coach, you might have the best point guard in the state’,” Graves said. “I may be a little biased, but that kid may be right — he’s freaking tough. ... We’ve got to have two to six points from those other guys, just finishing stuff. There was a lot of stuff that should have been called tonight, but that’s out of our control. It is what it is and when you’ve got a guy like Donnie, you’ve got a chance every night. I’m so grateful for him because there’s times where I’m like, ‘Man, what in the world are we going to do out here?’ He just makes something happen. He’s carried us all year. That kid deserves all the recognition he can get.”
The Redskins had limited practice time last week with school closed for weather, which has created concerns as the team prepares for the District 5-2A tournament.
“I feel like when we got like 10 days off school and everything, I feel like it affected us because we weren’t getting to practice,” Blankenship said. “I feel like we were getting gassed, weren’t used to running up and down as much but can’t blame it on that. That one hurt, but at least it’s not the end of the world and at least we’ve got the district tournament.”
Loudon will host cross-county rival Lenoir City High School at 7:30 p.m. Friday to cap off the regular season.
“One, we’ve got to get in the gym, we need to shoot, we need to practice, we need to do rotations and stuff in our zones, and so if we’re able to practice Wednesday or whatever, that’s what we’re going to work on,” Graves said. “We want to win the Battle of the Bridge at home and finish our regular season strong. ... Those practice days are going to be huge for us.”
“We expect to win on Thursday against Lenoir City, that’s a big one,” Blankenship added. “We know it’s going to be close because it’s a big rival, and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got to beat them.”