For the second straight night, and third time in a week, the Cougars were victimized by a shot in the closing seconds that wound up beating them.
On Friday night, Devonte Mitchell's short jumper in the lane with seven seconds left and his steal of Central's last-ditch effort to tie the game gave Sullivan South a thrilling 58-56 victory over its county rivals in a key Three Rivers Conference matchup in Kingsport.
View the photo gallery from the boys game
The Lady Cougars gained a split and continued to roll while avenging their only conference defeat by knocking off the Lady Rebels 61-42 to remain in first place in the standings.
View the photo gallery from the girls game
The script for the Central boys was eerily familiar as the fourth quarter proceeded. With the score tied at 51, Mitchell drove the baseline and scored and then Ethan Ward followed with a 3-pointer to put the Rebels up 56-51 with 3:02 remaining.
But the never-say-die Cougars responded. Jordan Self got a layup off of a lovely assist from Ben Williams. Self added a free throw and then tied the score with another basket off of a backdoor pass from Williams and the game was tied at 56 with 18 seconds left.
Ward pushed the ball down court and found Mitchell in the lane who turned around and drained the jump shot to give South a two-point advantage. Central opted not to take a timeout but rushed quickly toward the basket when the 6-foot-1 senior came up with the steal of an errant pass as the buzzer sounded, securing the Rebels' third consecutive conference win.
"We were up by two and I got back door cutted" recalled Mitchell. "But that happens, so I tried to make up for it. We brought the ball up court and found the middle of the lane. I shot the jumper and I knew it was in. It was great night for us ... a big win."
"What a great game for Devonte," added South coach Michael McMeans of his senior, who led the Rebels with 22 points and seven rebounds. "It's a testament to Devonte because he's had some ups and downs, but he's really come on. He and Ethan (Ward) and our starting five have really started playing well together."
The crushing outcome once again left Central coach Derek McGhee shaking his head and at a loss for words as his Cougars dropped their third straight conference contest in heartbreaking fashion.
"I don't know," said a frustrated McGhee. "We'll just keep playing. ... It's probably me, I don't know what else to do to get through to these guys. They have the ability, but for whatever reason we're going through this right now."
Central beat South 64-53 in their earlier meeting in Blountville, but Friday night was a different story. Mitchell, who missed their previous game against the Cougars, came out hot for the Rebels (12-11, 3-3) by scoring 10 their 15 total points in the first quarter. Chris Bradley's basket off an assist from Self ended the opening period tied at 15.
Mitchell's jumper and Luke Pollack's trey gave South a 31-27 advantage at halftime. The lead changed hands six times in an entertaining third quarter that was capped by Jackson Harrison's 3-pointer that put Central (9-13, 3-4) out front 45-43 going into the fourth quarter.
Self paced the Cougars with a game-high 23 points, while Harrison added 12. Ward tallied 11 points for the resurgent Rebels.
"We've made some adjustments," noted McMeans. "We've put some guys in some different spots. We've found some things we like and we're on a little bit of a roll here."
The Lady Cougars once again got off to a fast start with a 3-pointer and two free throws from Avery Leming and a rebound and score from Taylor Sanders to grab a 7-0 lead.
The Lady Rebels kept pace behind the hot shooting from Alex Harris, and Central held an 18-13 lead at the end of the first quarter. But the Lady Cougars (10-8, 6-1) pulled away in the second period thanks to their red-hot shooting from 3-point range.
Central went on a 19-0 run fueled by three treys from Leming and another from Peyton Sams. Rachel Robinette closed out the first half with another 3-pointer and the Lady Cougars had built a 45-26 lead behind eight treys, which proved to be too much for South to overcome.
"When we're playing harder on the defensive end and it turns into offense and we see one go through, it makes us want to keep knocking them down," explained Sams, who hit three treys.
"I think we're becoming a more well-rounded team," said Central coach Kristi Walling. "Everybody is stepping up and contributing. It's hard for a team to focus on one person because if you focus on one then someone else is going to step up and produce for us."
That was certainly the case Friday night. Leming and Abbey Crawford had 16 points to lead the Lady Cougars, while Sams added 14 points. Harris paced the Lady Rebels (13-9, 3-3) with 15 points.
"We didn't show up defensively until the second half," lamented South coach Torey Haile. "I don't know what the score was in the second half, but it was more even. We just didn't guard in the first half and they can knock them down."
Central avenged its only conference loss, a 55-47 defeat suffered at the hands of the Lady Rebels on Dec. 1. And it appears the Lady Cougars are hitting their stride at just the right time of the season.
"We started off a little bit slow at the beginning of the season," Walling said. "I think we're finally making steps to where we want to be towards tournament time."