In a scenario surprisingly similar to the 1996 championship team, fifth seeded Campbell County advanced to the finals of the District 3-AAA Tournament with an 85-72 rout of regular season champ Knoxville Central during Monday’s semifinals at Clinton.
The Cougars (18-10 overall) advanced to the title game Wednesday night to tackle Oak Ridge, a 54-53 overtime winner Monday night over Powell on the other side of the bracket.
The championship contest was in progress at press time but, regardless of the outcome, Campbell County will host a first-round regional game Saturday night at 7 p.m. against the third or fourth place team from District 4-AAA.
Sean Ward, a 6-foot-7 junior center, scored a game-high 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds Monday night to lead the Cougars to their first appearance in the league title game in 13 years. During the 1995-96 season, Campbell County came into the tournament seeded sixth before winning an unprecedented and unlikely third consecutive district crown. Prior to that, no team seeded sixth had ever won the tournament.
This year’s team is following in the footsteps of the ’96 squad. Since suffering a 57-55 home district loss on Jan. 15, the Cougars have won 10 of their last 12 games. That includes two blowout victories over Central and an upset of a higher seeded Knoxville West team during Campbell County’s current three-game winning streak.
Ward dominated the paint in Monday’s tournament semifinal game and scored eight points in the opening quarter and 14 in the second half.
Senior forward Zach Norman, the hero of Campbell County’s opening round victory Friday night over West, continued his stellar play with 14 points and seven rebounds against Central while Chris Poteet had 12 points, five rebounds and five assists from his guard position.
Justin Young added nine points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals in his first game back for the Cougars after serving a two-game suspension for an altercation during a regular season game against Karns.
Point guard Troy Arnold scored six points and dished out seven assists. Freshmen Chad Wagers and Cody Malicoat chipped in five points each, followed by Cody Suttles and Lucas Nelson with four each.
Campbell County could do no wrong in the first half. Nine players saw action for the Cougars, who led by as many as 17 points before Tashawn Kelly got hot and hit three consecutive baskets — including a three-pointer — to close the gap to 42-32 at halftime.
District 3-AAA Player of the Year Dre Mathieu led the Bobcats (20-9 overall) with 24 points, 16 of which he scored in the second half. Kelly added 14 points and Brett Wade 13 for Central.
Linwood Holloway, who scored 17 points and hit four 3-pointers during the Bobcats’ victory back on Jan. 15, has been held to a combined seven points in the past two meetings of the two teams.
Campbell County built its lead to 21 points in the second half. There were some tense moments when Central cut the Cougars’ lead to 10 points on three separate occasions down the stretch.
But Campbell County continued to shoot well at the charity stripe (81 percent) and got the bulk of its free throws during the second half to hold the Bobcats at bay.
Over the past three games, the Cougars have converted a staggering 69-of-86 foul shots for 80 percent, arguably the best such stretch in school history. They made 26-of-32 attempts Monday night.