Highlanders on top at Grainger
The Gatlinburg-Pittman Highlanders won the annual Pizza Plus Grizzly Thanksgiving Classic championship at Grainger County High School with a huge 57-55 win over District 1-AAA’s Daniel Boone Trailblazers on Saturday.
The GPHS Lady Highlanders finished second in the girls tournament to host Grainger.
Second-year coach A.J. Bennett guided his Blue and Gold squad (4-1) through the tournament’s field with wins over Grainger and Claiborne to reach the final matchup with the Blazers.
“I felt like we played pretty solid throughout the tournament,” Bennett said. “Other than a little while in the Daniel Boone game, we really didn’t trail too much. I was pleased with our mindset and where we were, and I pleased how we played.
“Coming off that loss against South-Doyle (Friday, Nov. 16), I really didn’t know what our mindset would be in the tournament, but we’d talked about just playing our basketball and playing together. When all five guys are looking for each other we can have a lot of success.”
After downing Grainger in the opening game 61-57 behind big performances from senior Blade Durbin (15 points) and junior Steffan Schroeder (13 points), the Highlanders moved into the semifinal against Claiborne.
The Highlanders controlled the first half against the Bulldogs, only to fall behind by one, 39-38, after three quarters.
Then the Highlanders’ seniors took over.
Durbin scored seven of his game-high 20 in the period, while teammate Davis Soehn caught fire, netting 11 of his 16 points over the final eight minutes to push the Highlanders to the 61-53 win.
“(Davis) is really attacking the basket more and he’s getting better looks outside because of it,” Bennett said. “It’s been beneficial to both sides of his game.”
In the finals against Daniel Boone, the Highlanders faced their toughest challenge of the entire tournament.
The Blazers came into the game having already recorded big early-season wins over Bearden and Morristown West.
Any nerves the Highlanders might have had showed early as they fell into a 6-0 hole to begin the game.
Bennett called a timeout to calm his players, and by the first break in the action they’d fought back to trail just 12-8. By halftime the Highlanders had claimed a 25-23 lead. But that lead evaporated in the late minutes of the third.
Trailing by two points 37-35 with a minute left in the quarter, back-to-back technicals on the Highlanders (one on a player and another on the bench), and a 3-point bucket for the Blazers gave Daniel Boone a 44-35 lead heading into the final quarter.
“That really hurt,” Bennett said. “We hadn’t played from behind much (in the tournament), but man, did they ever come together.”
Using great team defense together with timely scoring, the Highlanders tied the game at 55-55 with just seconds to go.
“(Daniel Boone) was holding for the last shot,” Bennett said. “But Steffan stole it and went down and made a layup with seven seconds to go. They got a last-second shot and missed it.”
Schroeder and Clay Leatherwood led the Highlanders scorers in game with 15 points each.
“I was really, really pleased with how our seniors, Blade Durbin and Davis Soehn, played in the tournament,” the coach said. “They were really the difference in those games.”
Both Soehn and Durbin were selected to the all-tournament teams for their efforts.
In the meantime, things didn’t go quite as smoothly for the Lady Highlanders.
The G-P girls (4-1) cruised through the tournament’s first two rounds with sound defeatings of Unicoi and Hampton, only to run into an absolute buzz-saw in the homestanding Lady Grizzlies.
The Grainger team (5-0) flexed their team muscle in the championship game, beating the visiting Lady Highlanders 71-42. Blake Lamb scored a game-high 36 points in the contest, to lead the way for the Lady Grizzlies. Gatlinburg-Pittman put up a valiant fight early, as sophomore Haris Price led a run that put the Lady Highlanders up 14-12 late in the first quarter.
An Allison Hodge 3-pointer put Grainger back on top, however, and a 17-0 run until the midway point of the second built the Lady Grizzlies’ lead to 29-14.
By half the lead stood at 43-21, and G-P couldn’t battle back in the second half.
Price led G-P with nine points, while teammate Alicia Sumeriski scored seven. The Lady Highlanders had beaten Hampton 68-56 to reach the finals, after beating Unicoi 70-46 in the tournament’s first round.
Both G-P teams will be back in action this Friday against District 3-AA foe Union County in the new GPHS gymnasium.