BY JOHNNY WILSON, Johnson City Press
ELIZABETHTON — After the way the last week or so had gone down, did anyone really think that upstart Elizabethton wouldn’t go ahead and win the District 1-AA girls basketball tournament Monday when it met Sullivan South?
The fifth-seeded Cylones finished off a terrific moment for their collective memory bank, methodically handling second-seeded Sullivan South and earning the district championship with a comfortable 56-42 verdict at Happy Valley High School.
Elizabethton will now carry the banner as District 1’s top seed on Friday night, when it hosts Cumberland Gap in first-round play of the Region 1-AA tourney.
Now 10-21 overall after a 5-7 run through their conference schedule, the Cyclones have won four of their last five games, starting with a victory over Three Rivers regular-season champion Sullivan Central on Feb. 8 and continuing in a district tournament romp with three Ws by double-figure margins.
“I knew our team and I knew if we could ever gain some confidence that we were capable of playing like this,” said Elizabethton coach Lucas Andrews. “We got that big confidence booster in our win at Central a week or 10 days ago and since then we’ve been a totally different team. We’ve just been a totally different team in the gym, on practice days and here in this tournament.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, that game against Central was also when Unicoi County transfer Kaitlin Bailey became eligible for the first time.
A 6-foot-1 versatile junior who played JV ball prior to her Feb. 8 varsity debut, Bailey won tournament MVP honors and scored 13 points against South.
“It was really hard at first leaving my whole team (at Unicoi County) and I struggled with it,” Bailey said. “I knew I was going to have to be playing JV and I fought through, and it was a growing experience for me.
“And now that I’m back on varsity I’m making the most of it because I know how valuable it is to get that playing time, and I really am grateful for it.”
But Bailey wasn’t the whole story for Elizabethton, which got a 16-point game from Morgan Headrick and a 13-point outing from Kaylen Shell, both of whom earned spots on the all-tournament team as well.
In addition, Cheyenne Van Huss swished three 3-point jumpers for ‘Betsy.
South (17-11), which hosts tough Greeneville in region pay, received 16 points from all-tourney selection Alex Harris, who made three 3s.
The Rebels trailed 12-8 after one period and 29-18 at intermission and simply did not have enough offense to overcome the deficit in the second half.
“I thought our defense was really excellent all tournament,” Andrews said.
COUGARS CLAIM THIRD
Regular-season champion Sullivan Central, which almost ran the table in the Three Rivers Conference before losing its last league game, got it together in the nick of time to overcome third-seeded Unicoi County, 62-59.
The top-seeded Cougars (19-12) of coach Kristi Walling trailed most of the night but managed to seriously outplay Unicoi County (16-12) in the fourth period and come back to pick up a morale-boosting victory.
Central now takes some momentum onto the road for Region 1-AA play this Friday when it meets Grainger, while Unicoi County travels for its region matchup as well as the Blue Devils go to South Greene the same evening.
The Cougars, down big by a 32-19 count at halftime, began their comeback in the third period, behind a couple of 3-point jumpers by Macy McClellan.
Central still trailed 44-35 entering the fourth when Avery Leming knocked in a pair of 3-point shots, including one which got the Cougars back even at 56-56.
Peyton Sams was big down the stretch, making four of four free throws and scoring on a drive to the hoop, lifting Central over the top.
Unicoi County missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer in an attempt to force overtime.
Abbey Crawford was steady inside all night for Central and finished with 19 points, while Sams provided 17 points of support.
Leming and McClellan combined for 17 points and hit five of Centrals seven 3’s.
The Blue Devils placed four players in double figures, Kaylee Hendrickson and Tenley Holt leading the team with 16 points apiece. Alley Griffith scored 11 and Caroline Podvin 10 for Unicoi County.