It starts out front with leading scorer Blake Atwood and his 26-points-per-game pace. But the inside play has made the whole thing fit together.
“The big thing is we’ve had really good guard play,” said coach Austin Atwood. “And the inside guys, Troy Arnold and Michael Oxentine, have done really well to be undersized. I feel like we present matchup problems every now and then.”
Johnson County (17-4) won its 12th straight game with Saturday’s decision over Hampton. And Friday’s win over Elizabethton allowed the Longhorns to move into a first-place tie with the Cyclones in the Three Rivers, a conference Atwood said is doggedly tough.
“I think our league is almost as good as the Big 7 overall, maybe excluding Dobyns-Bennett and Tennessee High at the top,” he said.
Timely defense was the key to beating the Cyclones and avenging the November loss in the league’s season opener.
“We have really defended well when we have to,” Coach Atwood said. “In the second half against Elizabethton, we held Eric Wilson to one point after he got 14 in the first half. That was a big turnaround for us. Defense and rebounding are the keys for us.”
Arnold has been the best post rebounder and stays in the forefront of anything that goes on in the paint.
“He has been a leader,” Atwood said. “People can tell how hard he works: to be a 5-foot-11 post and he has to guard some of the better post players in Northeast Tennessee.”
One reason Johnson County has been tough on Class AA teams is it played a difficult nonconference schedule that included Science Hill, D-B and Georgia’s Columbia High, a former Arby’s Classic entrant.
“We got down 16-0 against Columbia, and I’m thinking we won’t even score because they are huge,” Atwood said. “But we ended up beating them by six, and Blake had 39 points. We got on a roll from there.”
Blake Atwood has been remarkably consistent, scoring at least 22 points in each of his last 10 games. He had five 30-point efforts in that stretch. And he’s done it efficiently, shooting 61 percent on 2-pointers and 41 percent from trey country.
Other keys for the ’Horns include Lucas Phillips, Zach Eller and Gavin Reece.
To earn at least a share of the Three Rivers title, Johnson County will have to navigate two road games (Sullivan Central and Sullivan South) and three at home (Sullivan East, Unicoi County and Happy Valley).
“We just need to take care of ourselves, and hope the other teams care of each other,” Coach Atwood said.
Austin Atwood recently earned career coaching win No. 300. It’s a special accomplishment at a small school, especially considering the schedule challenges he has put his team through each season.
“We’ve always played a tough schedule,” he said. “Winning 300 games is the furtherest thing from my mind. I want us to be ready to play in late February and March. The 300 wins are just a longevity award.”
Boys basketball games of the week
Tuesday — Science Hill at Tennessee High, Elizabethton at Sullivan East
Friday — Hampton at Unaka, University High at North Greene
Science Hill took the measure of Tennessee High in their first meeting. But that was at home back in early December.
And while the Vikings are undefeated in the new year at 7-0, Science Hill limps in having lost three of its last four. It looks like a tough challenge for the Hilltoppers. ...
Sullivan East has struggled in Three Rivers games this season, but it is still a dangerous team. The Patriots catch Elizabethton after its first league loss and will be at home in what should be quite a battle. ...
University High stands atop the Watauga Valley Conference but faces a significant road test. Second-place Hampton has a difficult road assignment against a rival as it tries to keep pace with the Buccaneers.
Boys basketball rankings
Johnson County enjoyed a strong week with three wins, and the Longhorns moved past Elizabethton into the No. 3 spot in this week’s rankings.
Team (W-L) — Prv
1. Dobyns-Bennett (18-3) — 1
2. Tennessee High (18-5) — 3
3. Johnson County (17-4) — 4
4. Elizabethton (14-4) — 2
5. Science Hill (11-12) — 5
6. Sullivan South (17-7) — 6
7. University High (16-3) — 7
8. Daniel Boone (8-10) — 8
9. Sullivan East (14-10) — 9
10. Hampton (15-8) — 10
Girls basketball games of the week
Tuesday — Daniel Boone at Cherokee, Unicoi County at Sullivan South
Friday — Science Hill at Daniel Boone
It’s a very important week for Daniel Boone. The Lady Trailblazers still have a voice in the Big 7 Conference race but must win both games this week to avoid losing it. ...
Unicoi County currently sits in second place in the Three Rivers, but Sullivan South is among four teams giving serious chase.
Girls basketball rankings
Coming off a defeat of Watauga Valley Conference leader North Greene, Unaka edged into this week’s girls rankings while Science Hill supplanted D-B.
Team (W-L) — Prv
1. Science Hill (19-3) — 2
2. Dobyns-Bennett (18-5) — 1
3. Daniel Boone (14-7) — 3
4. Sullivan Central (14-9) — 4
5. Cherokee (14-6) — 5
6. Cloudland (14-5) — 6
7. Unicoi County (11-6) — 7
8. Happy Valley (14-7) — 8
9. Sullivan South (12-10) — 10
10. Unaka (9-11) — NR