CLEVELAND, Tenn. – In the end, visiting Lawrence County couldn’t keep Walker Valley’s Josh Jones from scoring perhaps the most important three points in his career.
Jones converted a three-point play with 7.5 seconds remaining Monday night to give Walker Valley a spine-tingling, 62-60, sectional victory over Lawrence County and the school’s second berth in the TSSAA boys’ state tournament in Murfreesboro.
The Mustangs will be the only Chattanooga-area Class 3A boys’ team at the state tournament. Bradley Central, the Mustangs' primary rival in District 5-3A, suffered a 69-39 blowout loss to top-ranked and undefeated Blackman on Monday.
“It was crazy,” Jones said of the hectic final seconds. “As a kid you practice shots like that in the driveway as an 8-year-old. I was able to make it in front of the biggest crowd I’ve seen here in my four years. It’s awesome.”
Six-foot-7-inch post Bryce Clifft made back-to-back layups, the last with 18.8 seconds showing to give the Wildcats a 60-59 advantage.
But on the other end, Jones drove the lane and dropped in the go-ahead bucket amidst a swarm of hands and arms from the defending Wildcats. He was fouled and calmly sank the free throw.
“(Bryce) Nunnelly drove it down and hit Josh down the middle, he got on (Clift) and finished it,” said senior Kenny Bunton, who transferred from East Hamilton with this – getting to the state tournament – in mind. “It happened so fast I couldn’t keep up with it. It seemed like time was moving so slowly, but it happened fast.”
After a timeout, the Wildcats’ senior Kirk Kemp got off a long desperation shot, but it wasn’t close to finding the range.
The only other time Walker Valley reached the state tournament was in 2008. The Mustangs defeated Science Hill before falling hard to Raleigh Egypt in the semifinals.
Walker Valley (23-9) becomes the second Bradley County team to earn a state berth in two days.
Bradley Central’s Bearettes clinched a spot on Saturday with a 68-58 sectional win over Stewarts Creek. They will play Dickson County on Wednesday.
The Mustangs are set to play on March 16, but won’t know their opponent until TSSAA holds the draw the draw is made Tuesday at 5 p.m. CST on the Murphy Center court at Middle Tennessee State University.
The Mustangs don’t mind the wait.
This has been years in the making.
“We’ve been taking a field trip to the state tournament every year,” Jones said. “We’ve always wanted to take a bus over there and play. This year we’re going to do that.”
Jones scored a team-high 15 points, five coming in the fourth quarter.
In fact, all five Walker Valley starters were in double figures.
Nunnelly scored 13 points and the other three – Kenny Bunton, Kolten Gibson and Cooper Melton – had 10 apiece. Bunton also had 10 rebounds, nine of the defensive glass, and four blocked shots. Melton claimed seven rebounds, as did Nunnelly, all coming on the defensive boards.
In fact, Walker Valley got 29 of its 35 rebounds on Lawrence County’s end of the court.
Nunnelly scored five points in the final eight minutes of a superlative contest that had the standing-room-only crowd of 1,500-plus standing most of the night.
Garrett Martin led the Wildcats (21-12), who have lost on the road in the sectionals for the second straight season, with a game-high 19 points. He made five 3-pointers, three in the third period.
Clifft finished with 15 points and Lance Pope added 14 – he drained four 3s and the Wildcats collectively hit 12, seven in the first half.
“Last year we lost to White County in overtime,” Wildcats coach Shaen Clark said. “This was probably even a tougher loss, but I couldn’t be more proud of our guys. Walker Valley is a great team with a lot of skill and they play so hard.”
Lawrence County, which lost to Blackman, 58-52, in the Region 4-3A championship game, got off to a blistering start and had 11-point leads twice in the first quarter when they hit four of their 12 3-pointers.
“I thought they were going to shoot us out of the gym,” Mustangs coach Bob Williams said. “They were on fire. But in the second half it was game on. It was anybody’s to win.”
The Mustangs strapped on their work clothes and fought back, tying the game 30-30 at halftime.
Walker Valley took its first lead at 34-33 on Melton’s bucket 75 seconds into the third quarter.
Despite back-to-back 3s by Kirk Kemp and Pope, Bunton’s layup with 42.6 seconds left gave the Mustangs a 47-44 halftime lead.
Then the fun really started.
Walker Valley, which led by five points twice in the third, duplicated that at 54-49 on Nunnelly’s three-point play with 4:24 remaining.
The Wildcats’ Cade Rohling, who scored his only three points in the final period, hit a field goal and Clifft sank four straight free throws to produce a 55-54 lead at the 2:24 mark.
Jones answered with a driving layup.
Clifft made another free throw and the game was tied at 56-all with 1:32 to go.
Eighteen seconds later, Gibson took a pass at the top of the key, quickly fired and nailed a clutch 3 that gave the Mustangs a 59-56 advantage.
“That was the biggest shot of my career,” the sophomore guard said. “That was definitely a big moment, especially in a game like this. When it left my hands I kind of knew it was going in.”
After a Mustangs turnover, Lawrence County called a timeout.
Moments later Clifft hit a layup with 1:00 left to pull the Wildcats to within 59-58.
Jones was fouled and went to the stripe with a 1-and-bonus. He missed the first attempt and Clifft dropped another layup on the Mustangs that produced the Wildcats’ 60-59 lead.
However, Walker Valley had 18.8 seconds to work with.
The Mustangs worked the ball around, draining valuable seconds off the clock.
That’s when Jones worked his magic in the lane for the layup and subsequent free throw, which came on a slightly delayed call from one of the three game officials. After a few moments of discussion between the crew, Jones went to the line for charity toss.
“Josh made a terrific play there are the end,” Nunnelly said. “The free throw put us up by two and that was huge. This is the best game I’ve ever played in.”
Walker Valley shot 46 percent (6-of-13) from 3-land and 57 percent from the floor (26-of-46).
The Mustangs’ double-figure scorers were a combined 24-for-42 (57.1 percent) from the floor.
“In the last month, we’ve played some pretty tough games,” Jones said. “We’ve found a way to win most of them, but tonight was really a huge win.”
Since their last loss – a 69-61 setback against East Hamilton in the regular-season finale – the Mustangs have reeled off six consecutive wins, including district and region championship tournament wins over Bradley and Monday’s victory over the Wildcats.
Blackman 69, Bradley Central 39: It was a tough night for the coach Chuck Clark’s squad (24-8).
In a low-scoring first half, the Blaze worked their way into a 23-17 halftime lead, but things quickly went south for the visiting Bears.
Blackman (32-0), which also eliminated Bradley from last year’s postseason in a 55-35 rout, scored 46 second-half points to erase any doubt it would be playing in the state tournament this time around, too.
Cedriontis Wilson scored 12 of his game-high 19 points after halftime and Deonte Alley got eight of his 10 following the break.
Wilson hit three 3-pointers and was 6-for-6 at the free-throw line.
Keeping the trend going, Christian Dewitt scored 11 of his 13 points after intermission and put up nine in the third period when the Blaze raced into a 46-27 advantage.
Blackman’s defense did a job on Bradley’s second-leading scorer, senior guard Bradley McCurdy, who has been on a tear in the postseason until Monday.
McCurdy was held to six points, just two in the first three quarters.
Junior Cole Copeland led the Bears with 14 points, eight coming in the third period.
Lawrence County 18 12 14 16 – 60
Walker Valley 10 20 17 15 – 62
Lawrence County (60) – Kemp 8, Garrett Martin 19, Lance Pope 14, Rohling 3, Bryce Clifft 15, Gulley 3.
Walker Valley (62) – Kolten Gibson 10, Cooper Melton 10, Eslinger 4, Bryce Nunnelly 13, Josh Jones 12, Kenny Bunton 10.
3-Point Goals – Lawrence County 15 (Martin 5, Pope 4, Kemp 2, Gulley 1), Walker Valley 6 (Gibson 2, Nunnelly 2, Bunton 1, Jones 1).
Bradley Central 8 9 10 12 – 39
Blackman 10 13 23 23 – 69
Bradley Central (39) – Brown 2, Cole Copeland 14, Duggan 3, Tucker 3, Bradley McCurdy 6, Ware 2, Pitner 5, Parker 4, Beavers.
Blackman (69) – Cedriontis Wilson 19, Deonte Alley 10, Sims 9, Christian Dewitt 13, White, Armstrong 1, Bry. Williams, Reeves 6, Hill, Nelson 2, Gibson 3, Thomas 6, Bri. Williams 2.
3-Point Goals – Bradley Central 3 (Copeland 1, Duggan 1, McCurdy 1), Blackman 7 (Wilson 3, Alley 2, Sims 1 Gibson 1).
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)
Josh Jones (24) of Walker Valley, shown in action earlier this season, converted a three-point play with 7.5 seconds left in the game and the Mustangs beat Lawrence County, 62-60, in the sectional round to clinch the school's second trip to the TSSAA boys' state basketball tournament.
- Photo2 by File/Dennis Norwood