CHURCH HILL – Don’t look now, but the Volunteer Falcons are 3-1 after their first week of the basketball season.
After dropping a Hall of Fame game, 63-56, Thursday to Unicoi County, Mike Poe’s Young Guns ripped off three wins in a row: 51-42 over Johnson County in their second Hall of Fame game Thursday; 59-56 over Kachea Friday and 61-56 over Red Bird (Ky.) on Saturday.
“We’re 3-1,” Poe said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been 3-1 around here. There’s a lot to build on.”
Saturday’s win was an exercise in perseverance. The Falcons jumped out to a 14-4 first-quarter lead, which they saw the Cardinals split to 19-14 halfway through the second period, then pulled off a 14-7 run to close the half capped by an Andrew Knittel three-pointer to take a comfortable 33-21 lead into the break of what was a frenetic first half.
The veteran Cardinals – eight of their 11 players are seniors – responded in the third quarter by outscoring the Falcons, 23-14, to pull within 47-44.
A free throw and three-pointer by Dalton Finley pushed Red Bird in front, 48-47, for their only lead of the game at the 5:29 mark of the fourth quarter.
The young Falcons answered the bell 53 seconds later when sophomore post player Garrison Barrett scored on a put-back to put Volunteer back on top, 49-48.
One minute later, Knittel, a freshman shooting guard who led Volunteer with 23 points in the win over Johnson County, hit two free throws to extend the Falcons’ lead to 51-48.
Twenty seconds later, Deagon Finley – who not only looks like his twin brother Dalton, but plays just like him – nailed a three to tie the game at 51-51 with 3:17 to play.
After Deagon missed the front end of a one-and-one, the Falcons ran a possession. Beginning at the high post, Barrett took his man on a nice spin move to put Volunteer up, 53-51, with 2:33 to go.
After the Falcons stopped the Cardinals on a one-and-done attempt at the defensive end, Barrett – growing up in front of our eyes – called for the ball beyond the arc, received the pass, turned and nailed a perfect three-pointer to extend the lead to 56-51 with 2:08 remaining.
Dalton Finley went coast to coast 55 seconds later to trim the lead to 56-53, but Heath Miller and Knittel each hit two of two free throws to left Volunteer to a 60-53 lead with 22 seconds left. Freshman point guard Bradin Minton, who dealt nine assists, added a free throw to up the lead to eight, 61-53, with nine seconds to go.
Austin Napier hit a trey with three seconds left but Red Bird could get no closer than 61-56.
“This team is going to continue to get better through the year,” Poe said. “We’ve got a lot of people that don’t have a lot of high school experience, especially playing against older kids that are going to get up in their grill quite a bit, which they did today.
“To me, other than the Unicoi County game, it’s obvious this is the best team we’ve played. They were very athletic and have mostly a senior ball club. So that was good that we were able to fight through some adversity. We went through a stretch in the third quarter and first part of the fourth quarter when we didn’t score the ball very well. We played a little pitter-pat with the ball too much,” Poe said.
“But a lot of those things will change as they get older and get a little bit more experience. I’m more than happy right now,” Poe said. “This whole thing is a learning process for us right now. I’m pleased. They’ve got great attitudes. They allow me to coach them. I’m ecstatic as to where we are right now.”
Nine Falcons scored in the game, led by Knittel’s 17, including three three-pointers. Barrett finished with 12, while Zack Evans added nine, two from beyond the arc. Volunteer hit nine three-pointers to four by Red Bird, which was led by Deagon Finley’s 15 and 12 each from Dalton Finley and Napier.
“It was a good week for us,” said Poe, whose Falcons fly to the Bahamas for a Thanksgiving week tournament.
“We’ve got an opportunity now, we’ll make a trip to the Bahamas and play some teams that are going to be ultra-aggressive – more aggressive than that team – with even more quickness,” Poe said.
“That’s going to be a great experience for our kids to try to have to handle the ball in that kind of pressure. The opportunities for shots will be split-second where you have to make that play to get that shot out of their hands,” Poe said.
“It’s going to be an exciting trip for our kids and our fans that are going with us. Hopefully, we’re going to get some good experience from what it’s going to be like to make that kind of travel, get prepared to play, eating at the right time, things that players need to learn,” he said.
“You can’t go out and eat a bag of nachos right before you go on the floor. You’ve got to eat at the right time of the day so you can have your food digested before you go on the floor. There’s a lot of things that these kids are going to be learning,” Poe said.
“Hopefully, we’ll make a return trip in a couple of years when these kids get a little older and at that time, hopefully, they’ll be ready go down there and compete. I’m excited for the trip and excited for the players,” he said.
“It’s amazing how fast basketball season goes. We’re almost through November. I’m having so much fun coaching these guys, it just seems like time is flying by. I want to stop and enjoy the ride myself a little bit,” said Poe.
A holiday tournament in Bahamas should be a good time for that.