CHATTANOOGA - Cannon County's "wild ride" came to a halt in the Choo Choo city, where the Lions suffered a 65-47 loss to Howard in the TSSAA Class AA Sectional at Henry Bowles Gymnasium Monday night.
Justin Davenport scored a game-high 23 points but it wasn't enough as the Lions (22-14) fell one win short of the school's first state tournament appearance since 1985.
"These kids have taken our community on a wild ride and I am so proud of them for it," said Cannon County third-year Head Coach Matt Rigsby. "I just told them how absolutely proud of them I am. They are hurting now but when they look back at the bigger picture they will understand the extent of what a great season this was in our school's boys basketball history."
Cannon County's seniors certainly are leaving the program in better shape than when they entered. Four years ago the Lions had completed a six-win season. Cannon County's win total increased each year that followed, capped by the first 20-win season in 11 years with 22 in 2010-11.
"We are all sad right now and nobody likes to lose, especially when it ends your season," said Davenport, who completes his career as Cannon County's all-time leading scorer. "We left the program in pretty good shape, I think. I believe we changed it for the better. We had our first 20-win season in 11 years and we came to the Sub-state. We came up one game short but we still had a pretty good season overall."
The Lions reached the Substate for just the third time since 1985, first in 11 years, and only the fifth time in school history. Eight seniors playing their final game included Davenport, Brian Cripps, Colin Jones, T.J. Mitchell, Jared Nave, Cody Ruehlen, Heath Simons and Gabriel Walkup. Manager Jeran Tenpenny also is a member of the senior class.
In a game that featured many peaks and valleys Cannon County appeared to be on the verge of extending its season after a vigorous rally pulled the Lions to within three with 5:28 remaining.
The Lions trailed 30-20 at the half and were down as many as 17, 39-22, midway through the third quarter but they used a 11-1 run to close the half and pull to within 40-30. Nave, who scored nine points and pulled seven rebounds, started the run and then Davenport took over.
The senior point guard scored six of the next eight points and the Lions had momentum on their side.
"We started hitting some shots right there and that allowed us to get into our defense, which started creating some problems for them," Davenport said. "We were able to get some easy baskets off those turnovers and then some 3s started falling."
The momentum carried into the fourth quarter. Davenport buried a 17-footer to start the frame and pull the Lions to witin 40-35, and Nave followed a Howard turnover with a turn-around jumper in the lane to make it a one-possession game, 40-37, with 5:28 remaining.
But Cannon County went without a field goal over the next three minutes and Howard used a 14-2 run to pull away. Howard (23-6) won for the 14th time in its last 15 outings.
" We lost to an absolutely great basketball team," Rigsby said. "They hit the two quick shots right after we had closed it to three and they have not been a good free-throw shooting team, according to their coach, but when we started putting them on the line they hit every one of them. You have to give them credit for hitting those shots with the game on the line."
Cannon County's initial defense was sound enough against Howard but the Tigers' definite size advantage was a factor. They scored 16 points on second-chance opportunities.
Mitchell scored seven points for the Lions, Cripps added five and Jones three.