Youthful Chatt Prep wins Class A quarterfinal in state debut

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Chattanooga Prep basketball players and coaches celebrate after beating Fayetteville in a TSSAA Class 1A quarterfinal Wednesday in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Christoffer Collins could be coaching for an NCAA Division I program or even be a full-time trainer for NBA players, but his choice to stay committed to the youngest boys’ high school basketball team in Tennessee has its own rewards.

And in that regard, Collins and Chattanooga Preparatory School are both receiving major dividends.

Chatt Prep made school history Wednesday, when the second-year varsity program of two eighth graders, four freshmen and five sophomores won in its first-ever appearance at the BlueCross State Championships. The Sentinels beat Fayetteville 57-49 in a TSSAA Class 1A quarterfinal at Middle Tennessee State University’s Murphy Center, extending their time at the state tournament for one more game — at least.

“I wouldn’t trade these kids for nothing in the world,” said Collins, who has trained professional stars such as Rhyne Howard of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream and Markelle Fultz of the NBA's Orlando Magic, both of them former No. 1 overall draft picks.

“They are like my sons," Collins said of the Sentinels," and have been since they were in sixth grade. They have trusted me this entire time. I am going to stay here for the long run with them. I am here for them, and they were certainly here for me today.”

Chatt Prep (29-8) will take on Hampton (27-8) — a 71-48 winner over Humboldt on Wednesday — in Friday's first Class 1A semifinal at 2:15 p.m. Eastern.

The Sentinels showed poise in the bracket's opening game, limiting their turnovers to 11 as their smothering defense helped create 23 by Fayetteville (19-9), which has eight upperclassmen on the roster and had four seniors among its starting five. Four players for Chatt Prep finished with at least two steals, with freshmen Derrick Roberson and De’Andre Turnbow tying for the game high with four apiece.

Joel Bullis, a 6-foot-4 freshman, scored the first five points in state tourney history for Chatt Prep and showed toughness from start to finish. His third steal of the game came on a leap at midcourt during the fourth quarter, and on the ensuing possession, the big man put his own miss back in for a 43-42 lead with 5:11 to play.

“We have worked really, really hard to get up here,” said Bullis, who scored 10 points and added nine rebounds while playing with a chipped tooth for the majority of the second half after being accidentally hit in the mouth. “I just wanted to play my hardest for my team and find a way to help us pick up a big win.”

No one shined brighter on offense than Roberson.

The freshman guard looked similar to his favorite NBA star, Kevin Durant, as he used his 6-foot-4 frame inside and a sweet jump shot to be a mid-range force. Roberson scored a game-high 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting and matched Bullis for the team lead in rebounds.

The presence of Bullis and Roberson was pivotal, with their combined 61 minutes on court resulting in a plus-21 point differential for the Sentinels.

“The whole time we have been at Chatt Prep, we have been playing up,” said Roberson, who has per-game averages of 2.2 3-pointers and more than 15 points. “We are use to playing against older people. We are really comfortable with the challenge and don’t ever back down. Tonight I noticed my 3 wasn’t falling early, so I had to drive to the rim and get my mid-range shot to go in instead.”

Ta’Suade Williams helped build a 28-23 halftime advantage for Chatt Prep. Williams scored eight of his 13 points on a perfect 3-of-3 start from the field, which included a 3-pointer that barely touched the net on its way through and an athletic drive down the right baseline to score despite being fouled.

Fellow sophomore guard Eli Gaines scored seven points in the third quarter despite playing with three personal fouls, closing the period with an acrobatic up-and-under layup through two defenders for a 39-35 lead.

Fayetteville went up 47-46 with 2:46 remaining in the fourth, but when the Tigers were hit with their second technical foul of the game just seconds later — on top of a personal foul — Chatt Prep capitalized by making four straight free throws. Williams and Roberson each hit two of the shots at the line, helping spark an 11-2 run the rest of the way in which the Sentinels were 9-of-12 on free throws.

“There is a lot of emotion we are feeling right now, but we are just keeping it in,” Gaines said. “This is a great moment for us, but we still know the job is not finished. We need two more wins. We need to be ready and stay ready at all times.”

Fayetteville was led by Bryson Johnson, who scored 15 points with three steals, and Isaiah Thomison, who had 11 points and 15 rebounds to help the Tigers finish with a 39-24 advantage on the glass.

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