Mackey's shot powers Gatlinburg-Pittman over Pigeon Forge
Gatlinburg-Pittman’s charmed season started unraveling weeks ago.
The Highlanders were auditioning heroes on Saturday to save the ship. Would it be Steffen Schroeder’s 11 points in the second half off the bench against Pigeon Forge? Clay Leatherwood made his best case, nailing a go-ahead jumper with 31 seconds to go in the District 3-AA quarterfinal.
But what G-P was looking for had to be even more dramatic than that. Facing the end of his career — and a season that began with 18 wins in 19 games — Thomas Mackey delivered a basket his teammates may never forget. By the time the ball swished through the net with two seconds left, it was time to celebrate.
“I can’t even explain it right now,” Mackey said minutes later. “I’m still in a daze, really.”
The senior’s short jumper gave G-P a 53-52 victory at Union County High School, moving the Highlanders into the district semifinals on Monday against Austin-East. More importantly, G-P (20-8) gets at least three more games and a berth in the Region 2-AA tournament for the first time since 2011 while the Tigers' season comes to an end.
“Players win games,” said Highlanders coach A.J. Bennett. “We feel like the five guys on the floor were going to give us a chance to win. Those seniors out there — we’re going to live and die by them — and they made a play when they needed to.”
Three of those seniors provided the scoring punch. Mackey finished with 12 and Leatherwood put up a team-high 13. Schroeder provided a second-half spark to get his 11 after sitting out the first half due to a violation of team rules.
Schroeder’s seven points in the third couldn’t have come at a better time. G-P’s offense was lethargic, falling behind 29-19 when the Tigers (10-17) went on a 6-0 run to start the second half. Trevor Jain had four of his 14 over that stretch. Nate Marine finished with 12 while Jake Kingery poured in 11 and Ryan Beal had 10 points.
Pigeon Forge had led for most of the game but a 12-2 run, half coming from Schroeder, set up a tight fourth quarter. It was a huge boost for a team trying to avoid it’s eighth loss in nine games after that 18-1 start.
“I think it was energy,” Schroeder said. “They bring a lot of energy but we didn’t start bringing energy until probably the fourth quarter when we started making shots. It felt like a lid was on the basket and we just couldn’t hit a shot in the first half.”
Leatherwood finally broke through with a 3-pointer 29 seconds into the fourth to give G-P its first lead since early in the second quarter. Pigeon Forge quickly jumped back in front on a pair of free throws from Marine, eventually stretching the lead back to eight points.
The game see-sawed until the final 90 seconds when the Tigers turned the ball over on the sideline while holding a three-point lead.
“That possession was a costly one,” said Pigeon Forge coach John Kucela. “We could’ve gone to free throw line. It could’ve given us a little more cushion there. We had chances and they hit a tough shot there to beat us.”
Even after that turnover allowed G-P to take the lead on back-to-back Leatherwood baskets, Pigeon Forge got about as close to the region tournament as it could. Ryan Beal gave the Tigers a 52-51 lead with about 12 seconds left when the Highlanders stormed back down the court.
The ball ended up in Mackey’s hands and he made sure the Highlanders ended Pigeon Forge’s season for the second year in a row.
“I’m just excited,” Mackey said. “We’re going to regions for the first time since my freshman year. It’s a good feeling. It’s a really good feeling.”