By TREY WILLIAMS
It’s no secret that winning basketball games in Oak Ridge is quite a project this season, as the Daniel Boone Lady Trailblazers and David Crockett Pioneers learned during season-ending sectional losses.
Coach Travis Mains’ Lady ‘Blazers lost 61-44 at Oak Ridge on Saturday, concluding a 29-6 season that included an undefeated record in the Big Seven Conference and a district tournament title.
Coach John Good’s Pioneers weren’t expected to get anywhere near a sectional game this season without buying a ticket after losing six of the top seven players from a team that earned Crockett’s first state tournament berth in 2016. But senior guard Josh “Rico” Releford was exceptional while scoring 35 points and freshman McHale Bright’s buzzer-beating put-back pushed the Pioneers past Daniel Boone, 77-75, in the Region 1-AAA semifinals Tuesday at Science Hill, thus securing a sectional berth.
A loss to Science Hill in the regional championship forced the Pioneers to return to Oak Ridge, where they clinched the program’s first state tournament last year thanks to the likes of Patrick Good, Dustin Day and Brendan Coleman.
But none of those guys were around this season. Neither were Peyton Ford and Ian Martin, and the Pioneers never threatened Monday in a 90-60 loss to the Wildcats (30-2), who won their 18th straight game while sealing their fourth state tournament bid in five years.
“We ran into a buzzsaw,” said Good, whose Pioneers (19-16) reached the state’s Sweet 16 after being picked to finish sixth in the Big Seven Conference.
Camara Bradley scored 17 points for Crockett. Releford tallied 15 points and nine rebounds, while Bright added 11 points.
“Our kids competed, as they have all year,” Good said. “Love this team. Proud of their accomplishments and the leadership.”
Releford finished the season averaging approximately 22 points, five rebounds and four assists. He’s getting interest from Tennessee Wesleyan, Florida Southern and some junior colleges.
The Lady Trailblazer’s top gun, 5-foot-11 combo guard Macie Culbertson, limped down the homestretch of her junior season. The Belmont commitment sustained a bruised quadriceps injury in the regional semifinals win against Morristown East and wasn’t her explosive self in a regional championship loss to Morristown West or during the subsequent sectional loss at Oak Ridge (both losses were by a score of 61-44).
“No excuses, but she was probably 30 percent against Morristown West and 60 percent against Oak Ridge,” Mains said. “And you’ve seen how she affects our team. Instead of going and shooting layups she was settling for jump-shots when she would get space. … Instead of having five points she could’ve easily had 25 points if healthy, I think, at Oak Ridge.”
Fellow junior Sydney Pearce, a 6-foot-3 post also generating plenty of Division I college interest, scored consistently against Oak Ridge – when, that is, Boone was able to advance the ball up court and overcome perimeter pressure for post-entering passes.
“She was highly dominant against them,” Mains said, “but the ball pressure was good enough where we couldn’t get it in there real easily. And she was blocking shots and getting rebounds.”
Beating West in the regional final would’ve allowed Boone a better opportunity to qualify for the state tournament. The Lady Trojans, which Boone split with during the regular season, defeated Hardin Valley, 80-59, to clinch a state tournament berth.
“Not winning the region’s where we messed up,” Mains said. “But this time of year you have to be healthy and you have to have a little bit of luck. … And (West coach) Johnny Galyon schemed us well.”
Coming up one victory shy of the state-tournament goal was hardly cause for disappointment after the initial pain subsided.
“The goal was to win the region so we could get a home game (in the sectional), and I think the injury had a little bit to do with not reaching it,” Mains said. “I don’t think we underachieved or overachieved either one. We had a tough schedule. The winning percentage of the teams we played was 63 percent. So to get 29 wins and six losses against that kind of competition, I would say, is a pretty good year.
“It’s tough to beat Bristol (Tennessee High), Dobyns-Bennett and Science Hill all twice in the same year. And (Sullivan) Central had a dangerous team because of their length.”
Mains credited every player in the rotation for their role in the successful season. Freshman Jaycie Jenkins and sophomore Bayleigh Carmichel were invaluable. So were seniors Makenzy Bennett and Montana Riddle and junior Emily Sizemore.
“Bayleigh Carmichel had a great summer last year and really had a good season,” Mains said. “Jaycie kind of took us by storm to start the year and had an unbelievable freshman year. I think she had over 250 points and 150 rebounds. She’s well on her way to having a great career.
“Of course, you know what you get with Sydney and Macie… I think Makenzy Bennett’s emergence was huge, where she was able to run the show at the point for us. Sizemore would come in and hit a bunch of big threes for us in big games.”
Bennett will play at King University. Riddle is receiving interest from Milligan, Mains said.
Daniel Boone’s boys were within a basket of reaching the state’s Sweet 16.
Forward Evan Scanlan was a rebounding force in the heartbreaking, season-ending loss to Crockett, and fellow senior Jayden Stevens turned in his typical gutsy effort en route to 10 points.
Chris Brown’s Trailblazers (18-14) have proven pieces returning with backcourt mates Eric “Doc” Rigsby and Chad Heglar and forward Gunnar Norris.