By Silas Aldridge. February 13, 2018. BOONE, NC – A pair of senior members of Watauga’s men’s basketball team put on a show Tuesday night before a near capacity crowd at Lentz-Eggers Gym in the first round of the Northwestern Conference 3A/4A championship tournament, but Lenoir-West Caldwell had some stars of their own. The Warriors upset the Pioneers, 84-74, in the third installment of one of the most hotly contested 2018 season rivalries.
In what may well have been the final basketball game of his high school career, senior guard Bryant Greene put the Pioneers on his shoulders and nearly willed Watauga to one more win, finishing with 34 points to go along with six assists. He rolled up 13 of those points in the fourth quarter alone, swishing in a pull-up jumper from just inside the three-point line to pull his guys within five points at the 2:46 mark.
A fellow senior Watauga teammate, forward Jonathon McClannon, chipped in 12 points and snatched a game-high 17 rebounds, while senior guard Alex Marinakis also added eight points on the night for the Pioneers.
But the Warriors were led by outstanding senior guard performances of their own. Tre Hall racked up 34 points in the contest to match Watauga’s Greene for game-high scoring honors, while fellow Warrior Kaleb Dula added 14 and Elijah Brooks put up 13 in the West Caldwell victory.
Watauga head coach Rob Sanders urged reporters later not to underestimate the importance of McConnell’s performance in the paint.
“If he wasn’t doing the job that he was doing on the boards,” Sanders noted, “we probably would’ve been down by 20 at the half. He did a great job of securing almost every missed shot that they had, and got a couple of offensive rebounds late in the first half.”
A quick lay-up by McConnell opened the scoring of the game and Greene nailed his first three pointer just 50 seconds into the first quarter to give Watauga an early, optimistic lead at 5-2, but Pioneers were uneven in their productivity for the duration.
“I was pleased with our offensive production early in the game,” recalled Sanders. “Then, as soon as (West Caldwell) went on a run, we stopped getting organized and running sets. We were in a little shootout right there at the beginning, but as soon as they built up a little lead we just got away from our organization.”
The third time these two teams met during the 2017-18 campaign (the first two going to overtime with tensions on the court and in the grandstands running high), the “rubber match” victory by West Caldwell a bit less contentious. It featured six lead changes and three ties in the tightly-contested first quarter, but after a corner three from Kaleb Dula swished through the WCHS net with nine seconds to go in the initial period, the Warriors were able to take a 26-21 lead into the second quarter.
And the Pioneers lost offensive momentum from there and their defensive efforts often faltered.
“We did nothing against the dribble-drive to force them to shoot jump shots,” offered Sanders in way of explanation. “In the first quarter, they took just two jump shots and everything else was off the shot chart– which means it’s a layup. Our initial help defense was okay, but we weren’t rotating and covering up the back side. They could just dump the ball off to whomever was on the block for an easy layup.”
Watauga cut the deficit to seven with 2:57 left in the third on a nifty finish through traffic by Greene, but the duel between Greene and Hall continued. Hall finished an acrobatic layup of his own with just four seconds left in the third stanza that pushed the Warriors lead back out to 12 points, at 66-54. The layup gave Hall 30 points at the end of only three quarters.
The final period got off to a slow start until Greene got going, smoothly picking the pocket of a West Caldwell player and taking it all the way to the hoop for two, to shrink the deficit to 66-56.
Greene continued to fight his way to the rack, eventually helping pull Watauga back to within five points at 73-68 on a pull-up jumper off the dribble with 2:46 remaining to play that forced a West Caldwell timeout.
“When he hit that shot,” recalled Sanders, “I really thought that we had a chance, if we could have gotten a couple more stops. Bryant had taken that look on of ‘we’re not gonna lose this game’ so he was going to attack the rim when he got the basketball and get his shot off. And he was hitting them, but then we got into that trading baskets thing again and when you’re coming back from behind you cannot afford to trade baskets.”
West Caldwell went on to pick up the win by a final score of 84-74 and moves on to the semifinals of the Northwestern Conference, which will be hosted by Freedom High School in Morganton. Watauga, now sitting at 11-11 on the year, has an ever so slight chance for an at-large bid to the state tournament.
However unlikely, hope springs eternal.
“At 11-11, it would be difficult for an at-large bid,” Sanders acknowledged. “But you never know, we’ll look at the projections when they come out tomorrow (Wednesday) and then we’ll just have to wait and see on Saturday if we’re in or if we’re not.”
Even if Watauga doesn’t wind up making the state tournament and Tuesday night’s game was in fact the final game of each senior’s career, their legacy will live on.
“I hope this wasn’t the last time that we get together to play a game,” said Sanders. “I’ve been really proud of this senior class for their leadership and, really, for their perseverance. I think their perseverance will be their legacy because they had a lot of heartbreaking losses early on in the season, a lot of games that could have gone either way and that they felt like they should have won. A lot of teams would fall apart after that adversity, but they refused to fall apart. They refused to not keep working every day in practice and showing up and giving everything they had in every game.”
- 34–Tre Hall
- 14– Kaleb Dula
- 13– Elijah Brooks
- 10– Kam Carver
- 7– Taye Dula
- 5– Javon Ellerby
- 1– Sam Perky
- 34– Bryant Greene
- 12– Jonathon McClannon
- 8– Alex Marinakis
- 6– Alex McConnell
- 6– Sam Crabbe
- 5– Hayes Henderson
- 2– Zach West
- 1– Jaiden Bond