By David Rogers. November 30, 2015. BOONE, NC — There is a beginning and an end to every basketball game. Sure, there is the in-between, but in Tuesday night’s rivalry game between Watauga and Avery County at Lentz-Eggers Gym, it was the beginning and the end that mattered in this battle for High Country superiority — and in the end, the visiting Vikings prevailed in overtime, 63-53.
Sophomore guard Deacon Heath drained a three-pointer for the Vikings with 13 seconds remaining in regulation to knot the score at 49-49 and send the game into overtime, while senior power forward Luke Crowe poured in a game-high 18 points to lead the Newland-based five past the host Pioneers. For Watauga, senior guard Caleb Bryson found the basket for a team-high 17 points and senior power forward Aaron Dobbins muscled his way inside the paint for 12.
Send In The Marines, It’s Wartime
When a block of student fans are outfitted in camouflage with jungle-themed paint black on their faces, it figures that you are going to witness one of those guerilla warfare, hand-to-hand combat types of basketball games. Early season non-conference play or not, it means something to the athletes representing each school and the student bodies, parents, alumni and fans supporting them.
In fact, if the game officials had called every foul in this very physical game, all players from both teams would have entirely fouled out by the end of the first period. There were more bodies lunging for loose balls if not flying through the air than seen in a Jason Statham movie. All on the court were gladiators and they each were faced with a mission impossible. Live free or die hard. You have the ball, I’ll fight for it.
In The Beginning And In The End
Well, call them Nervous Nellies because the Pioneers didn’t score their first points until 29 seconds remained in the first quarter.
Call them Johnny-Come-Latelies because after being down 16 points late in the first half and at a 9-point disadvantage by the end of the third quarter, the Watauga men’s basketball team rallied to take their first lead with just 2:29 remaining in the game, 47-46.
It seemed like the first quarter our guys were wearing mittens.
Everything seemed to be going the Pioneers’ way when they had a 3-point lead with 59 seconds to go in regulation. A steal at the far end and Watauga not only had the lead, but the ball, too. Pass to Dobbins. Pass to Bryson. Pass to Russell. “Keep away” at its best and the clock was ticking down.
Finally, the Vikings managed a foul. They had a couple of team fouls to give up before another one would send the victim Pioneer to the line. Quick fouls didn’t do anything to help Avery County gain possession, but they preserved those precious seconds on the clock.
Eventually, a backcourt foul against sure-shooting Nick Sherman with only a half-minute to go seemed to be the death knell for the Vikings. Sherman’s the guy that got the Pioneers back into the game. Sherman’s the monster that put Watauga into the lead. If you were a Viking fan, you didn’t want to see Sherman marching to the charity stripe.
But he missed, both. Clock ticking away, the Vikings leapt for the rebound, worked it down court, looking inside. Nothing there in the tightly guarded middle, but suddenly the ball is kicked out to young Mr. Heath on the left side, all alone behind the three point arc. Nobody around. Nobody guarding him. With 12.9 seconds to go, Heath calmly poured in probably the shot of his young career to tie the game and send it into overtime.
Inexplicably, the senior-laden Pioneers with mismatches aplenty inside couldn’t score for the first seven and a half minutes of the game, their passes swatted away, if not intercepted, or their shots clanging off the rim. Unpredictably, the Pioneers rallied from a 16-point deficit to lead by three with less than a minute remaining. And then just as mystifying, Watauga reverted back to its first quarter woes. It was if the Vikings were pre-destined to win this game.
With a minute to go in regulation and a three-point advantage, the guerilla-faced mob in the Watauga student section started chanting, “I – believe – that – we – will – win.”
It was short-lived confidence. With under a minute to go in overtime and sporting a 10-point lead, the Avery County student section gleefully offered: “I – believe – that – we – will – win.”
Sometimes a loss is the best coach in the world.
After the game, an obviously disappointed Watauga head coach Rob Sanders lamented to Blowing Rock News, “For the last couple of years, these rivalry games with Avery County have tended to come down to the wire. (Avery coach Scott Polsgrove) has a very good team over there this year. We tried to impress on our guys coming into this game that this Avery team is good enough to take advantage of all of our miscues, our mistakes. We’ve been getting away with committing really silly turnovers and self-inflicted damage, but Avery came in here tonight and took advantage of our every mistake.”
Sanders was shaking his head in disbelief when he recalled, “It seemed like in the first quarter our guys were wearing mittens. We couldn’t dribble the ball. We couldn’t catch the ball. We couldn’t pass the ball. We were just giving it away. Frankly, for a moment there I thought we were going to get shut out for the first quarter.”
According to the information available at MaxPreps.com, Sanders is now in his 12th year at the helm of the Pioneers. The physical education instructor added, “We’ve been telling our guys the importance of taking care of the basketball and everybody rebounding, boxing out on the defensive end, controlling the tempo of the game, creating our offense off of our defense and it is like we are talking and nobody is listening. We told our players at halftime that if we don’t fix these mistakes Avery is going to beat us tonight.”
Sanders found some rays of sunlight in the Pioneer performance. “We had an uphill road to go there (after the disastrous first half) and I am proud of the guys for fighting back.
“Sometimes a loss is the best coach in the world,” he added. “If our guys learn from this game, then it will benefit us greatly going into conference play. If they don’t learn from this game, then we are going to have a lot more of these feelings.”
That first quarter is what lost the game.
When Blowing Rock News pointed out the apparent mismatch in Dobbins’ favor inside and asked whether getting the ball to him down low was part of the game plan, Sanders said, “Not in the locker room, but when we came out and we realized that Avery’s Jeffrey Puckett was going to guard on the perimeter, that should have been good for us. Zach Valet is a good sized kid and can hold his own out there, but it gave us a mismatch inside for Aaron (Dobbins). So that is what we were trying to do. I was disappointed that we weren’t patient enough, especially there in the 4th quarter. We got in a little bit of a hurry. We had angles to feed Dobbins the ball inside, but instead of working to improve our angles, we immediately got rid of it and ended up sending it to the other side.
“Poor Dobbins,” Sanders noted, “he didn’t come off the floor unless there was a timeout, with Ebaugh being hurt. But Aaron gave us everything he had.”
In self-analysis of his squad’s strengths and weaknesses, Sanders admitted, “We’re not a team that can settle for outside shots. Nick (Sherman) has come off the bench very well for us the first three games this year. He didn’t have a great night shooting the ball tonight, but he had some clutch shots, including the one to tie it up and then the floater to give us the lead.
“I know he is kicking himself for those missed free throws,” suggested Sanders, “but afterwards I told the guys that everyone focuses on those when they occur late in the game and you lose, but that is not what cost us the ball game. The first quarter is what cost us the ball game.”
Asked by a reporter whether the Pioneers were suffering a bit of “hangover” after the big win over Wilkes Central the night before, Sanders conceded, “Maybe a little bit. But our players were told they were going to face a much better team tonight than they faced Monday night vs. Wilkes Central. But you are talking about 17- and 18-year-olds. You beat a team by 30 and you might think a little bit much of yourself going into the next game.”
Next up for Watauga is yet another High Country rivalry matchup vs. Ashe County on Thursday night, also at Lentz-Eggers Gym. The junior varsity women tipoff at 4:00 pm, followed by the junior varsity men, the varsity women, and then the varsity men will probably get started after 7:30 pm.
- Women’s Varsity — Avery County 44, Watauga 37
- Men’s JV — Watauga 34, Avery County 31
- Women’s JV — Score unavailable
MEN’S VARSITY SCORING SUMMARY
- Avery County
- 18 — Crowe
- 14 — Heath
- 12 — Waldroop
- 8 — Puckett
- 4 — Dominguez
- 3 — Lecka
- 2 — McIntosh
- 2 — Stansberry
- 17 — Bryson
- 12 — Dobbins
- 11 — Sherman
- 4 — Russell
- 4 — Mills
- 3 — Carmichael
- 2 — Valet