The Loudon High School Redskins shook up the District 5-2A tournament bracket Friday after pulling a 65-56 upset win over the No. 1 seed Polk County High School Wildcats.
“I thought it was gritty, I thought defensively we played extremely well, I thought we out-fundamentaled them all night, which was something I felt like we had to do because they’re a really good team,” Josh Graves, LHS head boys basketball coach, said. “We had to dominate them on the boards. I felt like we did that. You hear the team effort all the time, and it really was — everyone contributed. Just a tough, gritty win for our team.”
Polk County bested Loudon both times during the regular season, but the Redskins carried momentum down the stretch after picking up wins against rival Lenoir City and Sequoyah in the first round of the tournament.
Graves credits defense for the team’s recent success.
“We kind of got back on a roll, you know. We were on a roll there after Christmas, and we had all that time off and it kind of hurt us, so I feel like we’ve gotten back into the swing and it’s helped us get on a roll,” Graves said. “I feel like our defense has gotten better. We’ve really put an emphasis on keeping the ball out of the middle of the paint, not letting people drive it, walling up when they get inside. I thought we did a good job of that Friday night.”
The Redskins stayed ahead of the Wildcats the entire game and were led by junior point guard Donovan Blankenship with 24 points and 12-for-12 from the free throw line. Lucas Bivens added 15 and Gunter Millsaps followed up with 10.
“That was a huge win for us, and we were really excited because none of us have been to a district championship, so that was a huge honor for us to be able to go to it,” Blankenship said. “We knew that game would’ve gotten us to the championship, so I feel like we played that game extremely hard, and we were giving everything we had. I feel like that’s one of the best games we’ve played all year, too, so that’s what helped.”
Senior center Tyler Whitfield has gradually progressed into one of the top post players in District 5-2A. He led the Redskins with 14 points Thursday against Sequoyah in the first round and limited the Chiefs’ post in 6-foot-6 Jackson Kuberka.
Whitfield also isn’t one to shy away from taking three-pointers and has proven one of the team’s best perimeter shooters.
“I feel like I’ve shot the ball a little bit better from the beginning of the season to the end of the season,” he said. “Defensive-wise, I feel like I’ve been able to help the team out better than I did toward the beginning of the season. Just having size out there, being able to get the boards and being able to move on transition helps a lot, it gets more points on the board.”
Graves has also been pleased with the way other players have created much-needed balance.
“Donovan’s Donovan, he’s always going to be our horse, and people have really done a good job of trying to take him away and making life tough on us, but he still does everything we need him to do,” Graves said. “Lucas has been big for us, ball handling-wise, getting us in sets. Guys like Broady (Harrison) and Drew (Jackson) have been big for us on the glass, and Drew’s defense has been phenomenal. He held one of the MVPs of the district, the (Luke) Burrows kid who’s been just a force in this district since he was a freshman, held him to only two points from the floor.
“We’ve just had a lot of guys step up, fill their roles ... Gunter and Jackson (Williams) and Keaton (Harig) and Noah (Burnette) have been coming off the bench and filling their role when they’re asked,” he added.
Loudon advanced to the championship Tuesday and took on the Sweetwater High School Wildcats after presstime.
This marks the first time the Redskins have advanced to a district tournament championship game since 2007 when Loudon defeated Anderson County 55-43 for the District 4-2A crown.
Loudon will host the first round of the Region 3-2A tournament at 7 p.m. Friday against either Red Bank or Brainerd.
“It’s huge, that’s what you want — you don’t want to have to travel to Chattanooga on that Saturday, it’s tough to play down there,” Graves said. “It’ll be big for our kids to be able to play here, we’ll have our home crowd, to have Redskin Nation ... this is a big step for us. We haven’t been to the district championship since 2007, we haven’t won it since then either, so it’ll be huge. I went and watched their semifinals Saturday night, and both of those are quality programs. Red Bank is extremely athletic, and Brainerd’s tough as usual. I think it’ll be huge for us..”