In the first 16 minutes, the Blue Devils (7-5) took the battle to Pulaski, described by coach Scott Vermillion as the “second-best team we’ve faced behind Dobyns-Bennett.’’
Having found the lane too congested in the opening half, Pulaski (8-3) came out firing 3-point goals in the third quarter.
The Cougars’ first two baskets came from the perimeter and changed the complexion of the game.
Jared King connected from the right corner to give Pulaski its first lead. Moments later, Nubian Peak rang the bell from the same spot.
Even though Gate City got within one point three times after that, the Devils would never be ahead again.
“Those two 3-pointers broke our back,’’ Vermillion said. “We got behind by four points before we could get in a halfcourt offense.’’
It’s no secret Vermillion has been preparing the Devils for a return trip to the state tournament. Their schedule has been particularly menacing, which should heighten the players’ readiness.
“This Pulaski team is as good as anybody in Virginia’s Group A,’’ Vermillion said, pointing out that the Cougars have beaten George Wythe, Radford and Gate City twice each.
Hackney simply hoisted the Devils on his broad shoulders and carried them in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 of his team- high 17 points in a six-minute stretch.
“I got shut down in the first half,’’ Hackney said. “I managed to find some holes to drive through late in the game. We had (the Cougars) down but they found a way to come back. We dug ourselves a hole in the fourth quarter.
“Pulaski has a good team. That’s the kind of competition we’ll be seeing if we’re fortunate enough to get back to Richmond. We are getting the toughest part of our schedule out of the way and about to head into district play.’’
Hackney, whose timely shots propelled Gate City to the state finals last March, is averaging 15.5 points — slightly less than guard Tihlee Anderson (17.0).
“I’ve had a few up-and-down games,’’ he said.
The game was fast-paced and extremely physical. Pulaski applied constant pressure on Gate City’s guards. Anderson essentially beat the press and scored 16.
“These two teams are pretty familiar with each other,’’ Pulaski coach Mark Hanks said. An Emory & Henry College graduate, he’s well acquainted with the Vermillion family and Gate City principal Greg Ervin.
Hanks coached two state champions at Liberty Bedford before joining Pulaski. The Cougars have been to four VHSL regionals in a row.
King, a gifted athlete, was the pulse of Pulaski’s offense. The two-time all-district guard led the team with 17 points and consistently distributed the ball to double-figure scorers Peak (12 points), Ryan Adams (10) and Shay Dunningan (10). Peak is the Cougars’ top scorer on the season with a 16.6 average.
King, regarded as a major league baseball prospect at shortstop, has signed to play for the University of Virginia.
Pulaski cashed in 13 of 14 free throws in the last eight minutes.
Offensive rebounds gave Pulaski plenty of extra field goal opportunities, and free throws were like money in the bank.
“We got to the free throw line but didn’t handle the last three minutes very well,’’ Hanks said. “We are small yet do a pretty good job on the glass.’’