Gatlinburg-Pittman upsets Austin-East to reach third district title game in 12 years
Eliminating your rivals on a buzzer beater is a big deal.
But the chance to play for your school’s first championship in 12 years? That’s massive.
“It’s definitely way bigger,” said Gatlinburg-Pittman senior Clay Leatherwood. “Beating Pigeon Forge just got us here, where we are now. This gets us to the district championship. That’s been our main goal from the beginning. So, it’s huge.”
Leatherwood and his pals looked like the Highlanders of old on Monday, rolling up 31 points in the fourth quarter to knock off No. 2 Austin-East, 80-70, in the District 3-AA semifinals at Union County High School. The win puts No. 3 G-P into its third district title game since 2002, the last time the Highlanders won one, on Wednesday evening.
Tuesday’s fourth-quarter spurt was a 180-degree turn from the last time these two teams met. In that game last Tuesday, the Roadrunners’ Andre Wilson had 13 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter to erase a four-point deficit and give Austin-East the second seed.
This time, Steffen Schroeder started the quarter with a 3-pointer for G-P (21-8) before hitting two more back-to-back that helped break the Roadrunners’ backs. Schroeder had 11 of his 14 in the fourth while Leatherwood added half his 16 points. The Highlanders were led by a slashing Thomas Mackey and his 20 points.
“I feel like there’s a lot more energy tonight because Austin-East beat us twice during the season,” Schroeder said. “At our house, they blew us out and at their house, it was close. Now, we finally got them.”
That energy was the vital, missing component two nights earlier when G-P slogged its way through an elimination game against rival Pigeon Forge. It was Mackey’s bucket with two seconds left on Saturday that gave the Highlanders a third shot at the Roadrunners (17-10).
That lethargy was gone on Monday.
“The Pigeon Forge game, we knew that we escaped there, got out of there alive,” said Highlanders coach A.J. Bennett. “It’s survive and advance. I think playing Austin-East Tuesday really helped. It was back and forth all game. We had the lead in the fourth quarter. Our kids believed in the gameplan. We changed a couple things from Tuesday. They just had a lot of energy and that’s been the biggest thing.”
While Wilson still got 27 points, he had just seven in the fourth quarter. It was just a 57-56 Highlander lead when Schroeder knocked down those back-to-back 3s. The lead rapidly reached double digits when Zayquan Gillespie and Riley Trotter got to the line and knocked down four free throws.
The Roadrunners would chip at the lead here and there over the final minutes, but G-P always found a way through the press with a quick drive to the rim.
“It was lack of defense,” said Austin-East coach Marcus Stanton. “Nobody would step up to take a charge. Nobody would box out to get a rebound. … (G-P) played great. They hustled to the basket. They did the things that we normally do well.”
What the Highlanders did is return to what made them so successful during an 18-1 start to the year. The promise of December and early January finally returned. Perhaps no one was more excited to see that than Bennett, still soaked from a postgame water bottle bath.
“I want to win (a district title) for G-P,” he said. “I want to win one for these kids. I want these kids to feel that. They deserve to feel that.”