ATHENS, Tenn. - McMinn County senior guard Donte Arnwine said after his team's Class AAA high school basketball state sectional that the Cherokees have notoriously played better in second halves this season. At least that was the case Monday at McMinn County, and especially for him.
Sixteen of Arnwine's 23 points helped the Cherokees rally from a five-point halftime deficit and defeat Lawrence County 66-56, earning their first state-tournament berth in 20 years.
The tournament begins March 16 in Murfreesboro at Middle Tennessee State University's Murphy Center.
McMinn County (21-10) had 11 field goals to Lawrence County's 10 in the opening half, but seven of the Wildcats' were 3-pointers. Four Lawrence County players connected from behind the arc, led by Jake Richardson with three.
"We knew who their shooters were," McMinn County coach Keith Elliott said. "If they had made four 3s in the first half I would've been fairly pleased, but not seven. Some of that was bad judgment. We were there. We just didn't get out there and contest the shot."
Compounding the problem, Trent Garland - a stocky, shorter-than-6-foot post player - worked the inside for the other three field goals. Also, the Wildcats' 3-for-8 free-throw shooting was all his.
"What was he, 5-8?" Arnwine said. "He was killing us down low. They kept posting him up. Once we stopped him from penetrating, that's when we started coming back. Yeah, the first half they were hitting some 3s, but finally they started missing some shots."
Arnwine's halftime buzzer-beater was the Cherokees' only 3-pointer in the first half and kept them from being further down than 30-25.
Elliott said a point of emphasis during his halftime talk was to try to get more transition baskets. He also went to a more aggressive style of defense, something he said he was hesitant to do in the first half because he was concerned about his players' stamina.
The Cherokees won the third quarter 18-9 and were up 45-41 early in the fourth before Arnwine made three consecutive baskets on short jumpers for their first 10-point lead.
"I knew I had a mismatch," Arnwine said. "They were just letting me go."
McMinn County sealed things with 15-for-20 free-throw shooting in the fourth quarter. Taylor Hicks, who scored 11 points, made 8 of 12. Cedric Nevins added 10 points in the victory.
Richardson and Nick Messer each had 12 points for Lawrence County (23-11) - all on 3-point goals. Garland was one of three starters to foul out. His nine points were all in the first half, and Andrew Cheatwood's nine were all in the second half.
At halftime McMinn County honored the 1990-91 team that last went to a state tournament. Elliott, in his 28th season coaching, was an assistant under Ron Baker then. He's in his 17th season as head coach.
"I've never started a season without this being a goal," Elliott said.
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653.