By Taylor Welsh. December 20, 2017. BOONE, NC — Cheers, chants and even a head coach’s chest bumps were seen in Lentz-Eggers Gym Wednesday night as the Pioneers exacted revenge on Wilkes Central, defeating the Eagles 69-60.
COVER IMAGE: Hayes Henderson looks to score two of his 8 points on the night. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Blowing Rock News sponsorship of Watauga High School men’s sports is made possible by a sponsorship from New River Building Supply
Unlike last time Watauga played at home against South Caldwell, when the Pioneers drained five 3-pointers, the Pioneers got off to a slow start against Wilkes Central, barely scrapping to a 15-13 lead after fumbling multiple turnovers to the Eagles’ advantage.
This bad luck trickled over into the second half for the Pioneers. Wilkes Central went on a 12-3 run to open the second half, giving the Eagles a comfortable lead halfway through the third quarter.
Up to this point, Wilkes Central’s was led by forward Levi Church, who amassed 18 points for the Eagles, 12 from behind the arc, in the first half alone.
But the Wilkes Central offense came to a screeching halt late in the opening half as Pioneer senior shooting guard Bryant Greene led a comeback charge that ended with a heart-pounding 3-pointer. The long range dagger narrowed the Eagles’ lead to 28-25 with 3:51 to go in the first half. Moments later, a dazzling spin move from Hayes Henderson closed the Pioneer deficit to just a single point.
And just as momentum seemed to be turning in Watauga’s favor, Eagles’ point guard Noah Johnson glanced down the court to find his 6-foot-5 teammate Levi Church streaking along the baseline towards the hoop. Within seconds, Church was air born and slammed home an alley oop that silenced the Pioneer crowd with Wilkes Central taking a 37-35 lead into halftime.
It might be baffling as to when the cheers, chants and chest bumps come to play for the Pioneers. Well, with great man defense and weaving passes around the court, Watauga went on a 16-4 run to begin the second half, which head coach Rob Saunders said was the turning point of the game.
“We came out in the third quarter really strong,” Saunders said. “I told them in a timeout when we had an 11-point lead that this is the tipping point for us. Either we run away with this game or we let them back in it and we’re back into a dog fight. I’m proud of the effort from our guys.”
After the run was over, Wilkes Central attempted to regain momentum of the game. But just as they were in the works of a comeback, Pioneers’ Alex Marinakis took a charge under the basket from Church, and no one was more happy to see the senior shooting guard make this play than his own coach, who was so fired up from the play that he called a timeout just to chest bump Marinakis.
“In practice, we’re doing a charge drill and we get through with the drill and in the next drill of practice Marinakis steps out of the way to let a player get an open layup,” Saunders said. “That irritated me so I told him that I’ll make you a promise. Everybody knows how I horde timeouts so if you ever have the guts to step in front of a player in a game and take a charge, I will call a timeout and give you a chest bump, so I had to hold up to my end of the bargain.”
Frustration was visible on the Wilkes Central bench, as time after time the Pioneers’ out-muscled, out-hustled and out-played the Eagles in nearly all aspects of the game. And with aggressive plays down the stretch of the fourth quarter, Watauga was able to keep Wilkes Central at bay, defeating the team that beat them in the first game of the season.
Greene took full control of the game Wednesday night, finishing with 26 points, six rebounds and a steal. Alex McConnell finished with 15 points, six rebounds, three blocks and an assist. Henderson spun for 12 points and four rebounds while teammate Marinakis scored all of his eight points in the first half, but also had a game-changing charge to help his team get another victory.
Watauga will play in the Ashe Christmas Tournament Dec. 28.
Edited by David Rogers.