But an 11-4 run by the Hurricanes early in the fourth quarter proved to be the straw that broke the Rebels’ back.
The ’Canes used the spurt to roar back from a three-point deficit early in the final period and held on to claim a 64-61 victory in the quarterfinals of the Region 1-AAA boys basketball tournament.
“We needed to respond one more time with a run and we didn’t,” South coach Mark Pendleton said. “The effort never stopped — my team played really hard tonight — but they had one more run then we did.”
Despite shooting 46 percent from the floor and outrebounding East 28-21, South’s season came to an end. The Rebels led 53-50 in the opening moments of the fourth quarter before East went on the decisive scoring run to take a 61-57 lead.
South had some chances down the stretch but turned over the ball twice in the final minute.
“I was proud of the way our guys just continued to battle and make the plays we needed to make down the stretch to win the game,” East coach Mike Wright said. “I thought our crowd was great — the city of Morristown really came out and supported us tonight, which was huge.”
East got the partisan crowd rocking early as Gardner scored 11 quick points to help the Hurricanes build a 13-7 lead. Gardner ended up with 16 points in the first quarter after struggling mightily with his shot during the district tournament.
“We’ve really been in a funk the last couple of weeks,” Wright said. “The last few days in practice, he’s really started to get his stroke back.
“He came out early and often in this one and we were lucky because we didn’t defend well in the first half.”
While Gardner found his shot, South had to go to its bench early. Bailee Dick, Tyler Ashworth and Logan Blair each picked up two fouls by the middle of the second quarter.
The Rebels turned to Tyler Moore, who hit a pair of 3-pointers and helped South build a 37-34 lead at the half.
“It was probably our best bench game of the year,” Pendleton said. “With those guys out, we were still answering their runs, so that was a good thing.”
Moore led South (16-17) with 17 points while Dustin Sims added nine.
Gardner finished with 26 points and Brian Coy added 14 for East (24-7), which will face Tennessee High in the regional semifinals at Dobyns-Bennett on Tuesday night.
Even though South came up short, Pendleton was happy with the way his team handled the pressure.
“It’s about getting the opportunity to advance down the road,” he said. “We got that opportunity this year and I thought we responded very well, getting down early and coming back to take the lead.”