GATE CITY — Despite the championship stakes, the atmosphere permeating the Gate City Middle School Gym on Saturday night was that of a spirited but decidedly friendly rivalry.
It was a luxury probably worth indulging in. The survive-and-advance format of next week’s regionals are inherently unfriendly.
Luke Ervin scored 20 points to lead the Blue Devils to a 66-53 win over Lebanon in the Clinch Mountain District tournament title game.
It seems reasonable to expect that Gate City (20-5) would be one of the top two seeds for next week’s Region D, Division 2 draw.
The Blue Devils take nothing for granted.
“We know we still haven’t played our best. We just have to come in this next week of practice and get ready for Wednesday,” said Ervin, who balanced his muscular inside presence with four 3-pointers, including one with enough range to put North Korea on red alert.
Lebanon coach Thad Lambert had been in Charlottesville, Va., visiting his mother, who has been on a ventilator with pneumonia since early this week. He made it back to Gate City just five minutes prior to tipoff.
While his arrival was an obvious morale booster for the Pioneers (16-8), the emotional uplift only forestalled the erosion to come.
From the outset, Blue Devils coach Scott Vermillion went to the bench liberally. Caleb Herron, Cody Mays, Jon Brooks, J.R. Barnes and Brandon Baskette did their part to keep the starters fresh while wearing down Lebanon’s legs.
Mays had a particularly standout night, scoring six of his eight points in the first quarter.
“Cody Mays just keeps getting better and better. And Herron was exceptional in the second quarter. He probably produced 10 points there. He didn’t score them, but he produced them,” Vermillion said.
The Pioneers got 13 points from Ben Sexton, who helped Lebanon claw back to within a point on his trifecta with 6:24 remaining in the half.
The Blue Devils (20-5) responded with a 10-0 run that included buckets from Herron, Mays, Ervin, Michael Collier and Andy Arnold, who scored 13 points on the night.
As noteworthy was the flurry of assists from the likes of Herron, Collier and Dylan Jenkins.
“We’re all unselfish. I think it moves pretty well, and that helps us a lot,” said Jenkins, who scored 10 points. “As long as we take care of the ball and take good shots, I think we’re good.”
Lebanon got 11 points from Will Stamper and 10 from Austin Bollinger. Owen Slate flirted with double figures with nine.
The Pioneers just didn’t have enough bodies to withstand Gate City’s depth.
“I think that’s where they’re able to turn us over. Their numbers sort of wear on you,” Lambert said. “Every time we’d make a little run on them, it seemed like we’d turn the ball over a couple of times and they were scoring off a lot of our turnovers.
“We didn’t do a lot to help ourselves. But their defense forced a lot of turnovers tonight.”