Game I’ll Never Forget: A year after quick exit, Jr. Bucs make ’89 state tournament their destination

EDITOR’S NOTE: Second of an occasional series on memorable games as told from the perspective of the participants.

The “Game I’ll Never Forget” is the culmination of a season I’ll never forget.

But it started with the last game of the previous season.

In the first round of the 1988 District 1-A tournament, a young and unproven University High team faced off against the Cloudland Highlanders.

We played super aggressive defense, pressing and trapping all over the floor and proceeded to send Cloudland guard Matt Hyatt to the free throw line 26 times because we could not keep him from driving to the basket.

On the bus ride home in conversation with my assistant coach John Shulman, I told him that we were quite possibly the dumbest coaches in America. We played the wrong type of defense based on the skills and abilities of our players.

After a brief moment of shock at what I had just said, Coach Shulman and I began planning an entirely new defensive philosophy for 1989. We had many of the same players returning.

We committed to playing a more conservative position defense, blocking out on every shot, and being a great helping team.

“Help the helper,” was commonly echoed in the bowels of old Brooks Gym. We avoided gambling and trying to pressure the ball too much. Every day in practice we used the “shell drill” to teach those concepts. Taking charges was practiced and celebrated.

Our core group was led by seniors Alan Brown, David Crockett, David Thayer, Joey Cowan, Scott Wildman, and Patrick Harmon was one of the first off the bench. One newcomer was junior point guard Todd Easterling. These players led us in accountability.

Coach Shulman or myself would ask after each possession in practice “Who blocked out? Were you in help-side position?” Anyone who didn’t or wasn’t ran a sprint or did pushups — not so much for punishment, but to keep those concepts in the forefront of their minds.

Eventually the guys began evaluating themselves. It was not uncommon for one or more of them to drop and do push-ups without me asking if they blocked out, failed to help, or draw a charge. I cannot begin to recount the number of times Patrick Harmon or someone else would take a charge in a big moment to turn the momentum back our way.

The ‘89 season did not get off to a great start. We played a tough schedule. In those days our non-conference slate was filled with AA and AAA schools. We were learning the new defensive philosophy, and were competitive most games.

When conference play began, we were ready to compete for the top spot in our league. In our first of three games against a stout Unaka Rangers team at Brooks Gymnasium, both teams were undefeated in conference play. The game was a close-fought, heated battle.

During the midst of a UH run, water mysteriously got all over the floor in front of Unaka’s bench area. After several minutes of cleanup directed by Coach Snavely (We joked years later that the floor had never been so clean), the momentum had shifted.

With 10 seconds to go, UH’s David Thayer escaped a double team and found an open Scott Wildman at the basket to put us up 44-42. Unaka advanced the ball to half court and called a timeout with 3 seconds to play. We came out intending to call another timeout after seeing the Rangers set-up, but failed to get it called and Rangers Johnny Ensor made Unaka’s only 3 pointer of the game to escape with a 45-44 win.

Later in the regular season up on Stoney Creek, Unaka was riding a 15-game winning streak and had reached No. 3 in the state single-A rankings. Again the game came down to the final seconds.

With just a few seconds on the clock and a four-point lead, Unaka’s Johnny Ensor was fouled and heading to the line to “ice” the game. Suddenly, ice water flew from the general direction of the UH bench toward the other end of the floor, where Ensor stood at the line. Fortunately, there was no video evidence of the culprit. Calm was eventually restored and Unaka pulled out another close win, 61-59.

This set the stage for a third matchup in the District 1-A finals at Chuckey Doak.

We knew that Oliver Springs was an excellent team from District 2. The winner of the UH/Unaka final would be in the opposite side of the region bracket and the loser would likely meet Oliver Springs in a do-or-die game in the region semifinals. A district title game is huge anyway, but avoiding Oliver Springs until the region final made it even bigger.

The district championship matchup with Unaka was again close throughout. The atmosphere was amazing. Both teams’ fans, cheerleaders and players were giving all they had from the start.

Unaka led 17-13 after one quarter, UH had cut the lead at the half to 34-31. The Rangers aggressive man-to-man was their calling card, and we knew they would come out in the second half more aggressive than ever.

Since last spring we had devoted immense amounts of practice time to the “flex” offense and had numerous backdoor options when overplayed. Reminding our players at half of this, we executed the backdoor cut to perfection on the opening play of the second half, point guard Todd Easterling to David Thayer as I remember it. A couple more of those back doors in the third quarter helped us combat their aggressiveness and take a 10-point lead 49-39 at the end of three.

The Ronnie Snavely-led Rangers battled back in the final quarter taking a 56-55 lead with 22 seconds remaining. UH worked the ball to Alan Brown, who scored 11 points in the final and made the all-tournament team, but he missed a jump shot. UH big man Joey Cowan fought for an offensive rebound, then made the put-back with six seconds to play, giving UH a one point lead.

Unaka calls timeout and sets up their last play. The inbounds pass was bobbled, stopping all forward movement up the floor. Unaka did not get the shot they wanted and UH was crowned the District 1 A tournament champion in another one-point game, 57-56.

The win put Unaka and Oliver Springs in the same side of the region bracket. Oliver Springs defeated Unaka and then whipped us in the region finals, forcing us on the road for a substate game at Whitwell near Chattanooga.

Whitwell was good, but we had been playing with a great deal of confidence — in the postseason particularly. Unaka was clearly one of the best teams in single A that year and we stood toe to toe with them each time.

Our ‘88-89 team featured a balanced offensive attack. On any given night, Alan Brown, Scott Wildman, David Crockett, David Thayer, Joey Cowan or Todd Easterling could each score 10-15 points. They were unselfish, knowing what shots we wanted each of them to take, and giving the ball to a teammate if they didn’t have the shot we wanted.

But in this postseason, Todd Easterling had taken his offensive game up a notch. He averaged about eight points per game in the regular season, but had doubled his production in the postseason.

The substate game was another incredible atmosphere. Packed house, their fans were right on top of us. During timeouts and between quarters, it was nearly impossible to hear. We had been in so many close games this year, that the anxiety that comes in close games was common for us. We were prepared. Our guys knew what we wanted offensively. We had to call very few plays because we had put in the hours necessary in practice since last spring.

Halftime score was 35-31 Whitwell. UH led 50-49 at the end of three. Whitwell scored in the post with just over one minute to play to take a 61–60 lead. Scott Wildman hit David Crockett in the lane with about 50 seconds and Crockett netted the biggest of his game-high 17 points to give UH a 62-61 lead.

Joey Cowan then made the defensive play of the game, stealing the ball and getting fouled with :07 to play.

Setting up our defense for a made or missed free throw, I’d love to say we executed it perfectly, but we did not. Cowan missed the free throw, then tried to stop the ball rather than getting back. We then helped poorly, leaving a wide-open player near the bucket. Whitwell also failed to execute offensively, missing the open man and instead throwing it out to a contested man in the corner. Shot missed as buzzer sounds. UH heading to the state tournament. What a celebration! Amazing feeling.

This story started over a year earlier when this same group of players, after losing in the first round of the district tournament, believed in changes we implemented, worked like crazy, held themselves accountable to the smallest details. They believed in their coaches and more importantly each other.

Walking down this memory lane has been most satisfying and enjoyable. When Jamie Combs (of the Johnson City Press) approached me about writing a story, I had a challenging time picking one. There were so many. I am a blessed man to have connected with so many quality players, coaches, colleagues, and parents. I had amazing experiences and visited interesting places.

A special thanks to my wife, Paula. A coach’s wife has the toughest job. She hung in and supported me when I was a better coach than husband or father.

I appreciate the opportunity to tell this story.

(Currently a guidance counselor at Science Hill, Joe McPherson is also a former University High player. He coached the Jr. Bucs for 14 seasons — 1984-85 through 1997-98 — capturing five district championships, three conference titles and one regional crown. His teams reached three substate games, advancing to the state tournament in 1989)

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