By TONY STINNETT/ Courier Sports Editor
COOKEVILLE - With their backs to the wall and facing an elimination game in the first round of the District 8-AA Boys Basketball Tournament, Cannon County's Lions left nothing to chance in a 54-41 win against York at Cookeville High School Friday (2/15).
Cory Henley poured in a game-high 27 points and was the only Lion in double figures; however, Cannon County's battle of survival was far from a one-man wrecking crew. Team defense and another well-rounded performance from senior Jarrett Melton helped the Lions stave elimination. Melton finished with seven points, nine assists and connected on seven-of-eight free throws.
In fact, Cannon County's five seniors played a significant role in the victory with sterling defense and key rebounding.
The win enabled the Lions (13-15) to advance into the semifinals, where they suffered a 69-60 setback to No. 1 seed DeKalb County Saturday (2/16); however, Cannon County had already assured itself a berth in next week's Region 4-AA Tournament. Date and location were not set at press time.
It's no surprise five seniors - Ethan Bryson, Alex Davenport, Zach Higgins, Jarrett Melton and Justin Tobin played a big role in advancing Cannon County in the bracket.
Cannon County had lost six of seven games and was reeling when it traveled to York, Jan. 18. Lions Head Coach Matt Rigsby started all five of his seniors for the first time. The Lions won that game and went 4-4 down the stretch. They were also highly competitive in their losses.
"When we played at York (Jan. 18) it was one of our best four quarters and we started all five seniors up there," Rigsby said. "I just told the seniors they were going to set the tone for how this stretch run would end up, and how this season would end. They played well that night and they set the tone and we have been competitive since."
While Henley supplied the offense against the Dragons, a unified team effort assured York never got going offensively. Bryson's three offensive rebounds and putbacks were keys during a second quarter when the Lions managed just eight points and led 27-22 at intermission. Higgins supplied solid perimeter defense, Davenport came up with key rebounds and Tobin helped control the boards and took a charge as part of his defense and hustle contributions.
"This win meant a lot to all of us but especially the seniors," said Melton, who has averaged seven assists in the last eight games. "There is no tomorrow once you get to the elimination games in the district tournament. We played like a team focused on extending our season."
Henley, who scored 16 in the second quarter alone in the win at York, found his shooting groove early against the Dragons in the tournament game. Henley helped the Lions build an early 19-12 first-quarter lead with 12 points on the strength of four 3-pointers in the opening frame. Henley, who picked up his second foul and was forced to the bench midway into the second quarter, had 16 of his 27 by halftime.
"It was good to get things started on a positive note," Henley said. "When you are playing well early it helps you settle into the game. We really had to play to get this win and it was big for us to get to the region because this group has not been there. It should be fun."
It was a lot of fun against York early.
Henley was draining 3s. Melton's precision passes were setting up open teammates for good looks. The defense was stifling. Bryson's offensive rebound and putback capped a 10-2 run that provided Cannon County a 25-12 advantage midway through the second quarter.
It appeared the Lions were well on their way to an easy win but elimination games seldom are that easy. All of a sudden Tommy Mitchell, Tanner Larson and Henley had two fouls each.York responded with a 10-2 run and pulled to within 27-22 by intermission.
York closed to within 27-26 early in the third quarter but Henley started a 9-0 run with a 17-footer, followed by Mitchell's 3-pointer, and Cannon County had stretched its lead to 10, 36-26, with 4:03 remaining in the frame. The Lions maintained the lead throughout the remainder of the game to advance into the semifinals, as well as earning a berth in the Region 4-AA Tournament for the third time in Rigsby's five seasons at the helm.
In addition to Henley's 27, Mitchell and Melton finished with seven, Bryson added six and Larson finished with five.