Walker Valley went from a four-seed to champion – again.
Following the same path they took to the 2013 District 5-AAA championship, the Mustangs held off Cleveland, 68-63, Tuesday night for their second straight tournament title behind four starters with double-figure scoring and in front of a raucous, near capacity raucous crowd at East Hamilton High School.
“I’m on top of the world right now,” said Mustangs senior Lukas Korn. “We came through and did it again. It was a total team effort. I’ve been at Walker Valley four years and we won this thing twice. That’s great.”
Walker Valley (21-9) advances to the Region 3-AAA tournament and will host the No. 4 team from District 6-AAA, Cumberland County (11-18) while the Blue Raiders entertain No. 3 White County (22-7). White County beat Cumberland County, 72-38, on Tuesday.
In the 6-AAA girls consolation game, Cookeville edged Rhea County, 67-56. So, 5-AAA champion Bradley Central will host Rhea County on Friday and McMinn County will be at home against Cookeville.
The 6-AAA boys and girls championship games are scheduled for Wednesday night.
“We’ve watched teams from that other district and they’re all good,” Mustangs coach Bob Williams said. “We will have our hands full, no matter which team we play.”
The Ooltewah and Bradley Central boys, both 15-11 on the season 11, will hit the road and play at the 6-AAA champion and runner-up on Saturday. The Bears whipped the Owls, 67-54, for third place on Tuesday.
Cleveland leads the overall series with Walker Valley, 23-9, including a 20-6 mark during the regular season. It’s a different story in the postseason with the Mustangs pulling level at 3-3 with Cleveland after Tuesday’s win.
“I don’t think anybody has a magic potion for playing your best basketball toward the end of the season,” said Walker Valley coach Bob Williams, who is 11-20 overall against Cleveland. “But for the last two years we’ve played our best basketball at the right time and I’m excited for our guys.”
Austin Harwood led the Mustangs’ balanced attack with 17 points, including 12 in the second half.
Long-ranger Brandon Crews, who hit one 3-pointer in the title game (he drained six in a first-round win against Soddy-Daisy), finished with 15 points and got 11 in the opening half.
Korn tossed in 14 points and scored eight in the fourth quarter, with two buckets coming in the first 1:13 of the period.
Logan Melton added 11 points, hitting two 3s in the first period.
Those players make up four-fifths of the Mustangs’ all-senior starting lineup – Dustin Swafford is the other one.
Steady Kendrick Thompson, who shared regular season MVP honors with Ooltewah’s Ben Snider, scored a game-high 29 points for the Blue Raiders. In three tournament games, Thompson rang up 85 points, including a tournament-high 35 in a semifinal win over Ooltewah, for a 28.3-point average.
“But this loss is very disappointing,” Thompson said. “If we had won it would have been a whole lot better.”
Crews set the early pace, scoring six of the Mustangs’ first 11 points.
After trailing for the entire first period, the Blue Raiders overtook the Mustangs when Thompson hit a free throw for a 21-20 lead. Cleveland was up 28-27 with 1:05 left in the opening quarter, but Walker Valley went on a 6-0 run that spilled over into the third period to go up by eight points.
The Mustangs led 44-35 after back-to-back baskets by Dustin Swafford and Logan Melton. Cleveland clawed back into the game with nine straight points – seven by Thompson – to tie the game heading into the fourth quarter.
“It’s a brand new ballgame right there,” Cleveland coach Jason McCowan said, “and you’re eight minutes away from a district championship. We obviously couldn’t get over the hump in the fourth quarter.”
What was running through Korn’s mind?
“I was thinking we can’t lose all our momentum,” he said.
Korn made a spin move and hit a short jumper falling away. He was fouled on the play, but missed the free throw 12 seconds into the final period.
Korn broke free on a fastbreak and got the Walker Valley faithful on their feet with a dunk 61 seconds later and the Mustangs had some breathing room at 48-44.
“That was huge for them,” McCowan said. “We had scramble because we were playing from behind. High school kids see a four-point (deficit) and they start pressing a little bit. In reality, it’s just a two-possession game.”
Thompson showed how quickly he can strike a defense.
The 6-foot-1-inch guard turned a Walker Valley turnover into a driving layup and made another 15 seconds later to tie the game at 48-all.
“Kendrick does a lot for us,” McCowan said. “He gets nearly 30 when he’s tired and getting the most attention from Walker Valley’s defense. It’s pretty impressive what he did in this tournament.”
Thompson scoring quickly was exactly what Walker County didn’t want to happen.
“When the fourth quarter started our thought was don’t let Kendrick shoot the ball,” Crews said. “Chase him off the 3-point line and make him get to the hole. That was the plan because he’s a scorer and if he gets hot it’s over.”
This time, it wasn’t.
Crews hit a free throw, Bryce Nunnelly made two and Harwood dropped in two straight layups and the Mustangs had reasserted themselves at 55-48 with 3:40 left.
Cleveland’s Cantrel Ware made 1 of 2 free throws, but Korn answered with a layup off an assist by Crews to put the Mustangs’ lead at 57-49 -- to cap a pivotal 9-1 run -- at the 3:12 mark. That was Walker Valley’s last field goal until Korn connected on a layup with 64 seconds remaining.
In between Korn’s two buckets, however, Jake Gibson drilled a 3 from the right corner to trim the Blue Raiders’ point shortage to 58-54 with 2:23 on the clock.
“When it’s tournament time, Lukas steps up,” said Crews, who transferred to Walker Valley from Cleveland Christian School prior to the 2012-13 school year.
Cleveland was forced to foul and the Blue Raiders’ foul woes continued to mount. Walker Valley continued to make them pay. Crews and Harwood each made two free throws ahead of Korn’s basket and Nunnelly added a charity toss, pushing the Mustangs out front by 65-57 with 56.2 seconds showing.
The party was winding down.
Walker Valley hit 12-of-17 free throws in the fourth quarter and 17 of 21 for the game.
The Blue Raiders were 14 of 22 from the free-throw line.
The Mustangs made 23 of 43 shots for 53 percent, 10 percentage points better than Cleveland (21 of 49). They won the rebounding battle 26-23 and overcame 13 turnovers for the win.
“I came into the year thinking (Walker Valley) was the most well-rounded team in terms of guards, shooters and post players,” McCowan said. “A lot of our stuff is off the dribble and kick it out to the 3s. We don’t look much to the post.”
Now, the Mustangs can move on for another shot at a region title.
“Winning the district feels great,” Harwood said. “We’ve won it two years in a row and you can’t ask much more as a senior. We just have to keep going.”
Bradley Central 67, Ooltewah 54: The tournament’s Nos. 1 and two teams were relegated to the under card on Tuesday. The Bears proved to be the best team at bouncing back from a semifinal loss.
Ben Snider hit a baseline jumper to give the Owls a 45-44 lead 43 seconds into the final quarter.
Bradley then reeled off the game’s next 12 points – half of them by Taylor Bentley – and delivered a knockout punch that produced an 11-point lead with 4:12 left in the game.
Ooltewah closed to within 58-49 with just under three minutes remaining, but the Bears’ Dee Crisp, Daniel Clark and Bentley each scored two points in a 28-second span to close out the Owls at 65-49.
Cole Copeland paced Bradley with 19 points, Clark scored 17 and Bentley had 16.
Ron King led the Owls with 18 points that came on six 3-pointers – Ooltewah made 10 in the game. Snider scored 13 points.
Cleveland 13 15 16 19 – 63
Walker Valley 16 16 12 24 – 68
Cleveland (63) – T. Ware 4, C. Ware 8, Tatum, Kendrick Thompson 29, Beaty 6, Scott 5, Brown 2, Vecchio, Muniz, Gibson 9.
Walker Valley (68) – Logan Melton 11, Austin Howard 17, Lukas Korn 14, Brandon Crews 15, Swafford 2, Herd, Morrow 6, Jones, Nunnelly 3,
3-Point Goals – Cleveland 7 (Thompson 3, Gibson 3, Scott), Walker Valley 5 (Melton 2, Morrow 2, Crews).
Ooltewah 12 9 15 11 – 54
Bradley Central 22 9 13 23 – 67
Ooltewah (54) – Johnson 6, Boyd 6, Ron King 18, Ben Snider 13, Edward Montgomery 11, Ross, Freeman, Jones.
Bradley Central (67) – Daniel Clark 17, Cole Copeland 19, Crisp 4, Taylor Bentley 16, McCurdy 3, Gregory 6, Cox, Morgan 2.
3-Point Goals – Ooltewah 10 (King 6, Montgomery 2, Johnson, Snider), Bradley Central 5 (Copeland 2, Bentley, Clark).
All-District 5-AAA Team (Regular Season)
MVP – Ben Snider, Ooltewah/Kendrick Thompson, Cleveland
Coach of Year – Chuck Clark, Bradley Central
Taylor Bentley – Bradley Central
Daniel Clark – Bradley Central
Brandon Crews – Walker Valley
Lukas Korn – Walker Valley
Austin Harwood – Walker Valley
TyQwon Ware – Cleveland
Cantrel Ware – Cleveland
Jaymcal Johnson – Ooltewah
Kenny Bunton – East Hamilton
Tucker Landreth – Soddy-Daisy
Robbie Saxton – McMinn County
District 5-AAA All-Tournament Team
Walker Valley – Austin Harwood, Brandon Crews, Lukas Korn
Cleveland – Kendrick Thompson, Jake Gibson, TyQwon Ware
Bradley Central – Taylor Bentley, Daniel Clark
Ooltewah – Ben Snider, Jarek Boyd
East Hamilton – Kenny Bunton
Soddy-Daisy – James York
McMinn County – Jaylon Martin
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)