Hixson traveled to East Ridge still winless on the season and facing the lofty challenge of containing elite scorer Tyree Smith.
Throughout the first half, however, this game hardly looked lopsided, as Hixson matched their opponent bucket-for-bucket and led the game midway through the second quarter. The second half was a different story though, following a key defensive adjustment and a Tyree Smith takeover that ultimately downed Hixson handily, 81-52.
Hixson head coach Blake McNair led his team into the game with a brilliant game plan built around slowing Smith down, and early on, his strategy proved effective. Anytime the Pioneers’ prolific scorer had the ball in his hands, even if he was 90 feet from the basket, he was smothered by the best defender Hixson had on the court at the time. When he didn’t have the ball, a defender remained glued to him, determined to deny him possession at all cost.
Though the Wildcats took scoring lanes away from Tyree Smith, he opted for the role of the facilitator and set up a bounty of easy looks for teammates in the first half, including a stretch of six straight buckets that came off of clever and accurate feeds.
With Smith’s flashy scoring ability largely neutralized though, the door opened for Hixson’s TJ Earls to steal the show, and steal the show he did. Earls was red-hot from every spot on the offensive end, calmly burying deep triples, knifing to the rack for layups, and finding crafty buckets with runners and mid-range jumpers.
After the game seemed like it might get out of hand following a 17-2 start from East Ridge, on came the outburst from Earls. Hixson answered the Pioneers’ quick start with a 19-2 run of their own, getting 14 of those 19 from Earls.
The much-needed answer from the Wildcats kept them afloat, but physicality from East Ridge resulted in 10 trips to the line in the second quarter and they led the game by 10 at the half.
Whatever head coach Tre High said in the East Ridge locker room at half-time… it worked. The Pioneers came out of the half and put the game out of reach with a quickness. They outscored Hixson 24 to eight in the third quarter and clamped down defensively to force a flurry of turnovers throughout the period.
“We changed it at halftime,” said High. “We saw they couldn’t handle the pressure so we changed the press and stayed in it. We turned them over 38 times,” added High.
The frequency with which East Ridge forced errant passes and swiped the rock from ball-handlers led to transition buckets and woke up Tyree Smith, who scored 14 of his 17 in the second half.
The Pioneers also got substantial contributions from forward Hasani Jackson who scored a team-high 18, and big man Jack Mathery who dropped in 15 of his own.
Throughout the fourth quarter, East Ridge was able to afford valuable experience to freshman guard Deannte Robinson as well, much to the pleasure of his head coach.
“He came off the bench and had five steals, seven points, and seven defensive rebounds. I mean, you can’t beat that out of a freshman. He probably played 20 minutes all season, but tonight he was ready,” said High.
The big second half earned East Ridge a big district victory, getting them back to .500 at 10-10, and moving them to 5-4 in their district.
Hixson girls 41, East Ridge 9: Both of these squads have struggled this year, but Hixson proved to have the deeper, more capable team. The Lady Wildcats got buckets from nine of their 10 players, with Marissa Swanson leading all scorers with 11 points and knocking down a pair of threes. East Ridge stayed close for the first quarter but was held scoreless through the second and third quarters due to a stingy group of Lady Wildcats who raced out to the emphatic win.
HIXSON 15 11 7 8 - 41
EAST RIDGE 6 0 0 3 - 9
HIXSON (41) - Marissa Swanson 11, Brown 6, Bellamy 5, Lee 5, K. Collier 4, Plank 4, B. Collier 2, A. Collier 2, Kaylor 2.
EAST RIDGE (9) - Brown 2, Ky. Reid 3, Ki. Ried 4.
3-point goals: Hixson 3 (Swanson 2, Lee); East Ridge 1 (Ky. Ried).
HIXSON 16 10 8 18 - 52
EAST RIDGE 17 19 24 21 - 81
HIXSON (52) - TJ Earls 42, King 4, Tutt 3, Kamper 3.
EAST RIDGE (81) - Tyree Smith 17, Hasani Jackson 18, Jack Mathery 15, Cadion Harris 15, Robinson 7, Hamilton 4, Carnes 2, Ware 2, Harwood 1.
3-point goals: Hixson 7 (Earls 6, King); East Ridge 1 (Harris).
Records: Hixson (0-20, 0-10), East Ridge (10-10, 5-4).