Jellico High School’s boys have grown accustomed to fast starts this season.
It’s finishing the job that often has Blue Devils’ fans sitting nervously on the edge of their seats in the closing moments of basketball games.
During Saturday night’s Region 1-A Tournament opener against Unaka, host and number one seed Jellico looked as though it would threaten the century mark after rolling up 24 points in the first quarter. The Blue Devils cooled off before halftime but retained enough firepower down the stretch to defeat the fourth-seeded Rangers, 66-51, and advance to the region semifinals.
Jellico (21-8 overall) was scheduled to face Cloudland on Tuesday night for a spot in Thursday’s region championship game.
“If you could bottle up the first two minutes of (Saturday’s) game, you could sell it,” said Blue Devils’ coach Mike Reynolds.
“I knew we couldn’t stay that hot the whole game, but we played smarter down the stretch than we have been, especially handling the ball. I’m proud of our kids; they played hard.”
Ben Mitchell, a sharp shooting guard who was named MVP of the District 2-A Tournament last week, lit up the Rangers with four 3-pointers in the opening quarter as Jellico pulled out to a 10-point lead, 24-14.
Unaka rallied by scoring the first 12 points of the second quarter. Cody Cornett hit a basket to tie the game 24-24 with six minutes left in the first half. On the next trip downcourt, sophomore guard Josh Peterson put the Rangers ahead, 26-24.
Junior forward Jesse Chambers — who led all scorers with 19 points — scored six straight on four free throws and a field goal to get the lead back, 30-26, for the Blue Devils.
Jellico held a 33-31 advantage at intermission.
The Blue Devils began to pull away from Unaka with a 10-0 run midway through the third quarter. Jellico led by double digits going to the fourth quarter where the margin grew to 20 points, 63-43, on point guard Darius Marlow’s breakaway layup with just under three minutes to go.
Mitchell finished with 17 points for the Blue Devils, followed by Marlow — the District 2-A Player of the Year — with 10, Jeremiah Thompson eight, Thomas Ridenour seven and Matt Ayers five.
Marlow, Chambers and Ayers combined to score 17 of Jellico’s 20 points during the fourth quarter.
Peterson led the Rangers (11-17 overall) with 13 points, followed by Justin Nave with 10.
Free throw shooting kept Unaka in the game so long. The Rangers made 13-of-18 charity shots as opposed to 13-of-24 for Jellico.