ELIZABETHTON — A special team.
That’s how Sullivan North basketball coach Jay Gregory described the 2012-13 edition of the Golden Raiders following a season-ending loss to Elizabethton in the Region 1-AA semifinals.
Trailing by as many as 14 points in the third quarter, the Raiders (17-14) fought their way back into contention Tuesday night at Treadway Gym in Elizabethton before ultimately falling 67-58 to the Cyclones.
“We’ve had two or three games this year where our kids have absolutely just battled their guts out,” Gregory said. “A couple of free throws here or a couple of calls there and it’s a totally different game.”
In the evening’s other matchup, Sullivan East sank 14 3-pointers to secure a come-from-behind, 70-68 win over Chuckey-Doak.
Both of the night’s winners secured TSSAA sectional berths.
In the opener, North was able to grab a 5-0 lead in the game’s opening moments. Seniors Chase Arnold and Grayson Ball — who combined for 30 rebounds in the contest — controlled the defensive boards throughout the first quarter.
Elizabethton, however, was able to swipe control of the game. Trailing by four points at the end of the first period, the Cyclones (25-6) went on 10-0 run to take a 28-19 lead to intermission.
Led by senior guard Zeke Clark’s 14 points, the Cyclones continued to expand their lead in the third quarter. Elizabethton hit three 3-pointers in the period to take an 11-point lead going into the final frame.
Building on a recurring theme of perseverance, Gregory urged his players to continue to give their best effort, despite the odds.
“When we were in the locker room at the half, I told the kids that this is their game to win and that they just needed to go out there and take it,” he said.
A 7-0 run in the early moments of the fourth quarter helped North cut Elizabethton’s lead to 47-46 with 5:54 remaining in the game, but the Cyclones secured the win at the free throw line.
They hit 10 of 14 foul shots in the fourth quarter, and senior Will Robinson also hit a 3-pointer with less than 1:55 left for a six-point lead.
Gregory said he praised the “inspired play” of his team after the game.
“This is a very special group. Unfortunately, special teams don’t always win championships,” he said. “This is probably the most special team that has probably ever played at this school. That has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with the juniors and seniors on this team.”
Arnold led North with 24 points, including a 9-for-16 performance at the charity stripe. Ball added 18 points.
In the nightcap, John Dyer’s team trailed much of the first half — a credit to the Black Knights’ game plan, the East coach said.
“We played an inspired basketball team who played great tonight,” Dyer said. “I also don’t think we played our best. I think we played not to lose, but I think the game has more to do with how Chuckey-Doak played.”
East’s David Casaday, who finished with 19 points, sank a 3-pointer late in the third quarter to tie the game at 49. The senior guard gave the Patriots a 51-49 lead when he connected on a 10-footer late in the third quarter.
The Knights had one final chance for the win at the end, but Garrett Johnson’s 70-footer grazed the laces as time expired.
Senior guard Austin Fleenor led East with 21 points, including six 3-pointers.
The Black Knights were led by Cory Swinney’s 30-point effort.
East and Elizabethton will meet Thursday evening for the Region 1-AA championship.
While the Patriots and Cyclones have already advanced to next week’s sectional round, Dyer acknowledged the importance of winning the regional title: home-court advantage.
“I’ve said it for two weeks now that we’ve put extra pressure on ourselves. We’ve got to find a way to get over that. At this point, it’s all about going out and playing, winning and advancing,” he said.