CLEVELAND, Tenn. – Walker Valley was in a pickle.
Rhea County had a six-point lead with 2 minutes, 3 seconds left in Friday’s District 5-AAA basketball tournament quarterfinal game at Cleveland High School.
A loss meant elimination. Season over.
In 22 seconds, the Mustangs scored five points to pull within 53-52 of the Golden Eagles, a spree that breathed new life into their bid to reach the semifinals and nail down a spot in next week’s Region 3-AAA tournament.
Over the final 2:20, Walker Valley outscored Rhea, 13-1, to chalk up hard-earned, highly-entertaining 59-54 victory in a game that grew more than a little chippy and forced game officials to call three intentional fouls in the fourth quarter.
“That was huge,” Walker Valley coach Bob Williams said of this team’s quick-strike assault on the Golden Eagles. “We haven’t been a pressing team all year, but maybe we should have been. I thought we did a great job putting pressure on them right there, Austin Harwood made two quick hustle plays for steals and we got two baskets out of them.”
Harwood’s put-back goal triggered the spurt with 1:43 left.
Harwood’s forced turnover led to Lukas Korn’s layup at the 1:34 mark.
After another Rhea miscue, Walker Valley’s Caio Hysinger was fouled and made one of two free throws with 1:21 remaining to set up the Mustangs’ final game-winning blitz.
“That meant everything,” said Walker Valley senior Tucker Godfrey, who scored a team-high 16 points despite seeing the first box-and-one defense deployed against him. “I give Austin all the credit with those two steals and they really paid off.”
With the win fourth-seeded Walker Valley (16-11) advanced to a Saturday semifinal showdown against No. 1 Ooltewah (16-8) at 6 p.m. The Owls won swept two regular-season meetings between the two teams, the first by 15 points and the rematch by one at Walker Valley. Bitter rivals Bradley Central and Cleveland clash at 7:30 p.m. in the other semifinal.
“Ooltewah has a great team and we don’t have a lot of time to celebrate our win tonight,” Williams said. “I’m happy we’re in the regional, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
In an earlier girls quarterfinal game between the same two schools, Walker Valley escaped with a 52-48 victory and will take on top-seed Bradley Central on Saturday at 3 p.m. in a semifinal matchup. Cleveland plays McMinn County at 4:30 in the other semifinal.
Rhea County’s boys were hampered for more than three quarters by the disappearance of high-scoring Jalen Smith, whose only offensive contribution for the first 26 minutes was three free throws.
Smith, who scored 41 points in the regular-season finale against Cleveland and was averaging 22.8 points going into Friday’s game, didn’t hit his first field goal until 5:49 remained in the fourth quarter. He connected on his first 3-pointer with 4:37 left and that gave Rhea County a 47-44 lead, the Golden Eagles’ first advantage since 32-29 late in the third quarter.
Smith finished with 13 points, giving him 26 double-digit scoring efforts in 27 games this season.
“Those 41 last week woke up everybody, but we had a week and couple days to get ready and it was all about Smith,” Williams said. “My assistant coach ‘played’ Smith and his knees are shot. Austin did a nice job on him and we got great help with him. Gabe (Cartwright) came in and guarded him some, too.”
With Smith’s effectiveness stymied by Walker Valley’s box-and-one scheme, the other Golden Eagles assumed a leading offensive role collectively.
In a 15-0 run that slipped into the second quarter, Demetrius Patterson hit two 3s, Nick McWherter made two baskets and Logan Hunter got a steal and driving layup – all that came after Smith’s three free throws.
“We need Jalen,” Rhea County coach Mike Phillips said. “He was focused, ready to go. He just didn’t hit many shots. We tried to post him down low to get him going that way. For us to lose this one by five points and Jalen just score 13 points says a lot about our other kids.”
Following Smith’s first 3-pointer, the 6-foot-1-inch senior scored four consecutive points to cap a 12-0 run that started after Patterson was called for an intentional foul on Walker Valley’s Dustin Swafford.
Swafford went up for a driving layup, Patterson grabbed him around the shoulders and Swafford slammed to the floor without being able to brace himself for the hard landing.
“I don’t think it was anything dirty,” Williams said of the hard foul, “but he took a pretty good hit. He’s a tough kid and bounced right back up.”
At one point during the game, a tournament official and one security officer visited the Rhea County student section to calm their actions. There was no further incident, although fans from both schools were audibly “steaming mad” at the court action heated up in the second half.
The Mustangs got hyped. Ironically, so did the Golden Eagles, who had a 51-44 lead after dozen straight points.
Patterson was flagged for a second intentional foul with 8.2 seconds remaining, leading to three Mustangs free throws and the Eagles (11-16) were done.
Over the final 18.7 seconds, the Mustangs made 5-of-6 free throws and Godfrey was 4-for-4.
Hysinger picked up an intentional foul with 3:07 left in the game, but the Golden Eagles got only one point – Smith’s free throw that pushed Rhea’s lead to 51-44– out of it.
Hysinger and Korn each scored 14 points for the Mustangs and Harwood had 10.
McWherter scored a game-high 20 to pace all scorers. In one second-half stretch, McWherter scored seven straight points and kept the Golden Eagles within four points of the Mustangs at 43-39.
Walker Valley’s three wins over Rhea County this season were decided by a combined 18 points.
“All three games went down to the wire,” Williams said. “We knew it would take a full-out effort for us to compete and win this game.”
The fifth-seeded Rhea County’s girls used a 19-7 run to expand an 8-7 lead to a 27-14 advantage. The Lady Golden Eagles (19-9), who lost both regular-season games to the Lady Mustangs, were up 31-21 at halftime.
That’s when No. 4 Walker Valley (15-13) hit five straight 3-pointers to start the third quarter to cut the deficit to 38-36.
Jaclyn Griffith’s 3 capped the long-range barrage and D.J. Mowery hit a turnaround jumper from the lane and Victorio Jones made two free throws and Walker Valley had a 40-38 lead with 1:34 left in the third quarter.
It was Walker Valley’s first lead since 5-3 when Griffith hit the first of her four 3s.
“They do that against you,” Rhea County coach Shane Johnston said. “They hit 12 3s against us at their place. We’ve got to play four quarters and that’s been our nemesis all year. It cost us again tonight.”
On Friday, the Lady Mustangs made 10 3-pointers, including four each by Griffith and Peyton Davis.
Julie Brown’s bucket gave Rhea County a 44-43 lead with 5:35 left in the game, but the Lady Golden Eagles went the next 4:48 without scoring a point and trailed 50-46 with 47.1 seconds left.
Twice Griffith made 1-of-2 free throws to offset a basket by Rhea’s Amber Levi over the final 21 seconds to preserve the Lady Mustangs’ win.
“I wasn’t nervous at halftime, but I was upset by the way we were playing,” Walker Valley coach Jessica Stone said. “I wish our offense would lead to good defense in a game like this, but it wasn’t happening. I told the girls at halftime we had to find our rhythm.”
Griffith paced the Lady Mustangs with 16 points. Davis scored 12 points and Jones 11.
Brown poured in a game-high 22 points for the Lady Golden Eagles, including 13 in the first half.
Walker Valley lost twice to Bradley Central during the season by scores of 62-42 and 58-53.
Bradley has won 37 consecutive games against district opponents.
Rhea County 20 11 9 8 – 48
Walker Valley 14 7 20 11– 52
Rhea County (48) – Revis, Loden, Miles 4, Thurman 6, Julie Brown 22, Thompson 6, Amber Levi 10.
Walker Valley (52) – Watson 2, Macon 5, Percy 2, Jaclyn Griffith 16, Peyton Davis 12, Victorio Jones 11, Mowery 2, Alomar 2.
3-Point Goals – Rhea County 5 (Brown 3, Thompson 2); Walker Valley 10 (Griffith 4, Davis 4, Jones 2).
Rhea County 19 6 10 19– 54
Walker Valley 10 11 19 19 – 59
Rhea County (54) – Hill 4, Jalen Smith 13, Harrison 1, Patterson 6, Hall 2, Nick McWherter 20, Hunter 2, Jenkins 6, Loden, Downey.
Walker Valley (59) – Tucker Godfrey 16, Austin Harwood 10, Caio Hysinger 14, Melton, Cartwright, Lukas Korn 14, Swafford 2, Brownfield 3.
3-Point Goals – Rhea County 3 (Patterson 2, Smith 1); Walker Valley 3 (Hysinger 2, Godfrey 1).
3 p.m. – (1) Bradley Central girls vs. (4) Walker Valley
4:30 p.m. – (3) Cleveland girls vs. (2) McMinn County
6 p.m. – (1) Ooltewah boys vs. (4) Walker Valley
7:30 p.m. – (3) Bradley Central boys vs. (2) Cleveland
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)