BOYS' STATE SECTIONAL MATCHUPS
Monday, March 4
Clarkrange vs. Boyd-Buchanan at Chattanooga State, 7
Grace Academy at Watertown, 8
DeKalb County at Howard, 7
McMinn Central at Livingston Academy, 8
Siegel at Bradley Central, 7
Ooltewah at Blackman, 8
It might seem unfathomable, but the Grace Academy basketball team might be more comfortable tonight in their surroundings than Watertown, their opponent in a Class A sectional game. Sure, the Purple Tigers are hosting, but fresh off their first-ever region championship, they've never experienced a game with so much pressure on the line.
If the Golden Eagles have an advantage, it's that they have.
Grace will travel to the small, 1,300-person community and their 1,300-seat gymnasium tonight at 8 EST with a berth to next week's state tournament on the line. It will be the fourth time in the past 10 seasons that the Golden Eagles have traveled for a sectional game. Twice they've won -- at Trousdale in 2004 and at Friendship Christian in 2010.
The fourth-ranked Purple Tigers (29-3) boast a seven-player senior class that is having the best season in school history. The team has been led by its' high-pressure defense predicated on ball pressure and traps in the half court and full court, as well as in man defense or in zone.
"One of the things we try to preach to the guys is to use the environment as an advantage," Grace coach Jon Mattheiss said. "It's going to be a crazy, packed gym with a fun, exciting-type atmosphere. We tell the guys, 'Who wouldn't want to play in that?'
"We try to twist it and turn it from a negative into a positive."
The Golden Eagles (12-15) have already had to deal with plenty of adversity throughout the season. The team lost leading scorers Corey Nelson, now a freshman at Lee University, as well as Stephen Record from last season. The team started off 6-2, including a win over District 6-AA Hixson. Since then, they've suffered through both three- and four-game losing streaks yet still find themselves a win shy of returning back to the state tournament behind the four-member senior class of Alex Hernandez, Austin Powell, Josh Smith and Aaron Tisdale.
Now, they just have to adjust to the loss to junior Blake Savard, who suffered a knee injury in the region semifinals.
"We know we're expecting a rowdy environment tomorrow," Powell said. "I love being the underdog because there's no pressure and we can come with everything we've got. We lost a lot coming into the year in Corey and Stephen, but us seniors did a good job of uniting the team.
"We had some trouble in the middle of the season, but we're a close team and we're hitting our stride."
• The Bradley Central girls' basketball team drew second-ranked Science Hill in the opening round of the Class AAA state tournament, starting at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro on Wednesday. The teams will play at 2 EST.
The third-ranked Bearettes (29-2) earned their way to Murfreesboro for the first time since 2001 by defeating Blackman 55-46 Saturday. The Lady Blaze were tied with the Lady Hilltoppers (33-3) for the second spot in the last Class AAA poll.
Science Hill was state runners-up a season ago, falling to Riverdale in the finals.