Young Panthers upend Rockwood

Lenoir City Intermediate/Middle School's Zach McNabb makes a layup Monday in the Panthers' 46-36 win over the Rockwood Middle School Tigers.

The Lenoir City Intermediate/Middle School boys and girls basketball teams inched one step closer to district championship hopes Monday night with a sweep over Rockwood Middle School.

The Lady Panthers led 18-1 at halftime before rolling on to a 34-8 victory over the Lady Tigers.

First-year head coach Amber Henderson praised her team's effort in the dominant performance.

"We're very, very young, so we're making young mistakes," she said. "We've got two sixth-graders on the floor at all times, and they showed up and played well tonight. The defense looked good tonight. We've got to figure a way to make free throws  — we were five of 22, which is not going to cut it in close games. It's already cost us a few this year, so we've got to figure out the free throw thing, but I'm proud of how scrappy they are ... they're a scrappy crew. They're young and we're learning, but we're going to get there."

Henderson has some big shoes to fill after replacing longtime head coach Rachel Gray, who won numerous district and region titles at LCIMS.

She brings coaching experience after spending time at Cherokee Middle School.

"I'm just trying to make sure the level of competitiveness stays to the caliber it's been while Rachel's been here, and that is my goal as coach here," Henderson said. "The parents have been great, the school's been great and I love what I do here. I hope to do it for a long time.

"I was offered a job here because I wanted to come closer to home," she added. "I'm from Loudon, so I wanted to be closer to home for my family, and my son was in school here, so it was important to be closer to here."

The Lady Panthers lost a lot of talent to graduation over the last two years, but Henderson is excited about several key players, including Maelyn Boyd and Lexi Varner.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, Maelyn Boyd, she's a playmaker," Henderson said. "She's a seventh-grader. She shows up and she's crucial to our success. Lexi Varner, (a) sixth-grader, those two are going to be a lethal combination the next two years. They work well together ... just as a sixth- and seventh-grader, they've got good chemistry. I think we're still working with our bigs. We've got work to do there, they've got to rebound. All of them are a piece of the puzzle. Bailey Burnette's another one, defensively."

The Panthers followed up with an exciting 46-36 win over the Tigers, led by an 18-point performance by Zach McNabb.

Guards Trey Wilhite and Drew Henry added eight and nine points, respectively, to help close the game down the stretch.

"The guys played great," Bobby Johnson Jr., LCIMS boys head basketball coach, said. "We really worked on our press ... they really got in their press and covered the way they were supposed to. We went with a different set there in the second quarter with a small set with five guards to try to speed the game up, and that kind of extended our lead. We moved Trey to point guard, we've got Drew over at the three, and he's taking care of business over there and gives us an opportunity to score. Zach did a great job of getting to the rim."

Johnson is confident the team can compete for a district championship.

"I've been on them about just settling, attack, moving that ball one more pass," he said. "They did a good job of being patient and getting it done. We're learning, we're learning. We don't have a deep bench. The district's been pretty tough so far. Up front, we've played some pretty hard games to get started with — it's a lot. Most weeks, we're going three games a week, so you don't have time to adjust a lot, so we're learning on the fly. We've just got to be ready by tourney time, which is in January."