On Monday night inside Herman Thompson Gymnasium, it was time for the Sullivan South boys basketball team to advance to the state tournament for the first time in school history.
The Rebels used a 14-3 first-half run and a 9-0 outburst to start the third to secure their 76-70 win over Alcoa.
“This is something that for 20 years has haunted me because my team lost to Oak Ridge twice,” South coach Michael McMeans said. “It’s something that was hard to get over as a player and it really drove me to come back and coach. It’s such an honor to come to the school I graduated from and 20 years later getting another opportunity at it.
“This doesn’t come around a whole lot in East Tennessee. To come here and get over the hump and go to state is fulfilling. We took advantage of the opportunity and I couldn’t be happier for the school and the whole community.”
Ben Diamond had 23 points on the night, but his fourth-quarter effort from the free-throw line ultimately pushed the Rebels to Murfreesboro. The senior guard knocked down 12 of 15 foul shots — including his last 10. He had 16 points in the fourth quarter.
“When you have a kid like that that wants to go to the line, you don’t feel any pressure when he’s up there,” McMeans said. “He goes up there and knocks them down and that’s a luxury to have because that wins games for us.”
Senior Gannon Chase had 15 points and Nick Ellege finished with eight big points, all in the second half.
Down 42-27 with 5:43 left in the third quarter, the Tornadoes came roaring back. Though they cut their deficit to three at 49-46, South weathered the storm and pushed its advantage back to 10 by the end of the third.
“We thought we had some pretty good matchups coming into the game,” McMeans said. “We knew they were athletic and they were going to guard us pretty hard. ... If we could come and throw punches and get a lead or hang around that we would have a shot. We knew that they would go on a run at some point and that would be dangerous. We weathered it and then it was time to answer.”
Taishaun Cates shouldered the load for Alcoa with a game-high 34 points. The Tornadoes’ outside shooting woes — they didn’t make a long-range shot until the second half — cost them dearly. Alcoa made only three 3-pointers for the game.
Two Alcoa players fouled out of a physical game that saw 43 total fouls called, 22 of them on South.
“That fourth quarter felt like it took an hour and neither team wanted to go home,” McMeans said. “Our guys went in there and battled. We took the hits, fouls, and we were able to close it out.”