OOLTEWAH — East Hamilton’s length and athleticism were a problem all evening for McMinn County.
The Cherokees trailed by 18 points at halftime in the District 5-AAA tournament semifinal Saturday at East Hamilton High School. While the Tribe managed to cut its deficit to 10 points four times in the third quarter, it could not sustain the rally and fell away to a 78-59 loss.
“We came out and played with a lot of energy, but I think they were a little more physical than us in the first half, and that really took a toll on us,” said McMinn assistant coach Jay Johnson, who was acting head coach for the second straight game. “The big guy inside (6’9” Cade Pendleton), he had a hand on a lot of our layups and stuff like that, so we had a hard time scoring inside.
“But as far as the second half, I’m really proud of the way they rallied and played. I told them they were playing soft and didn’t play tough (in the first half), and they came out in the second half and showed they played tough.”
The second-seeded Hurricanes scored the game’s first nine points and had No. 3 McMinn (15-13) chasing all night. Five straight Hayden Frank points, including a three-point play, cut McMinn’s deficit to 18-11 before Darwin Randolph finished the first quarter with five points for East Hamilton.
The Hurricanes (17-3) led 23-11 after a quarter and swelled their lead to as many as 20 points in the second, as McMinn shot just 4-13 from the floor that period. Still, a Jalan James bucket and two Donovan Daniel free throws helped the Cherokees keep East Hamilton in sight, as they trailed 40-22 at halftime.
“I think moving forward we took a lesson that we’ve got to be a tougher team,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to play tougher. We can’t get pushed around and stuff like that, and we’ll be better moving forward in the future.”
Ty Runyan, Davion Evans, Parker Bebb and Andrew Beavers got McMinn off to a 9-1 start to the third quarter, cutting its deficit to 41-31. Bebb and Frank each had answering baskets that brought the Cherokees to within 10 points, and two James free throws again cut the margin to 49-39.
But the Hurricanes finished the third quarter with a Pendleton hoop inside and Randolph stealing the ball at midcourt and dunking it just before the buzzer. That was the start of a 15-3 run from a re-energized East Hamilton team that McMinn couldn’t recover from.
“The whole season I understood that, how big of a difference not having fans would affect the energy on the floor,” Johnson said. “And I think that they got their fans and their student section and their bench involved, and they just fed on that energy and it propelled their team forward to overcome a little more adversity. And we were smaller and the people we had were a little quieter. We gave it everything we had, but that had a big hand on the game and how they played.”
Seven of the Hurricanes’ first 11 points of the fourth quarter, which continued their key run, came from the free throw line, with McMinn getting whistled for several touch fouls.
The Cherokees were also charged with two technical fouls in the final period. For the entire game, East Hamilton attempted 38 free throws to McMinn’s 15, as the Tribe had three players foul out.
With the loss, McMinn will play in the district tournament consolation game 7 p.m. Tuesday, which will take place back at home against Walker Valley, with head coach Ed Clendenen back on the bench. Fourth-seeded Walker Valley lost Saturday’s other semifinal game 77-30 at top seed Cleveland.
The Cherokees will also travel to begin Region 3-AAA tournament play, with possible destinations being White County and Warren County from the opposing District 6-AAA.