CALHOUN, Ga. - There was a noticeable chip on the collective shoulders of the North Murray Mountaineers in Thursday night's Region 5-AAA basketball tournament quarterfinals.
After two heartbreaking defeats in the last week, coach Tim Ellis's team took it out on Adairsville, 66-40.
The Mountaineers led 23-8 after one period and coasted to the impressive win. Led by senior star Zach Vess's 22 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots, North Murray (20-6) dominated inside against the smaller Tigers, getting repeated layups and finishing with a 35-18 edge in rebounds.
It was in stark contrast to the Mountaineers' last two games, when they lost on last-second shots by region leaders Gordon Central and Cartersville.
"We had a good week of practice and of games, but we just came up short against a pair of good teams in Cartersville and Gordon Central," said Ellis, whose team gets another shot at Gordon Central in tonight's semifinals. "We got beat on the last shot of both games, so our guys came out tonight with something to prove.
"Now we've got a chance. We're back in the state tournament and we've got another shot at Gordon Central tomorrow with a shot at getting a home-court playoff game."
North Murray left little to chance Thursday. Vess made three layups in the first four minutes and ended the first half with seven rebounds and five blocked shots. The Mountaineers ran at will and had little trouble breaking the Tigers' press.
"We knew they would press us at the start, and we wanted to be aggressive against that," Ellis said. "We were able to execute, and that gave us some easy baskets. I'm happy for this bunch of guys for embracing me as their coach and for busting their rear ends."
Vess, like his coach, is glad to have another shot at Gordon Central, who won their two regular-season meetings by a combined seven points.
"We've got six seniors who aren't ready to give up yet," the 6-foot-5 center said. "It means a lot to make the state field, but now we've some payback to give. We want a region title and we'll have to beat two really good teams to do it."
Fellow seniors Brady Swilling and Austin Horn added 13 and 11 points for the winners.
In Thursday's other boys' quarterfinal, Ringgold won the battle of Catoosa County as Kile Sholl and Zach Dean combined for 34 points in a 69-52 win over Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe.
In the girls' bracket, LFO earned a state berth with a 47-44 win over Gordon Central, and North Murray edged Adairsville 53-48.
Today's schedule begins at 4 p.m. with the LFO girls taking on Cartersville, followed by the North Murray and Gordon Central boys, the North Murray and Sonoraville girls and the Cartersville and Ringgold boys.