Chatt Prep’s remarkable season ends in Class 1A state semifinals

Staff photo by Olivia Ross  / Chattanooga Prep's Eli Gaines (15) is trapped by Hampton's Michael Anspaugh (4) and Dylan Trivett during a TSSAA Class 1A semifinal Friday at the BlueCross Basketball State Championships in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Chattanooga Prep's Eli Gaines (15) is trapped by Hampton's Michael Anspaugh (4) and Dylan Trivett during a TSSAA Class 1A semifinal Friday at the BlueCross Basketball State Championships in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Chattanooga Prep coach Christoffer Collins summed up a remarkable second season for the fast-rising varsity basketball program with a familiar but fitting phrase: “What a difference a year makes.”

And after a state tournament run beyond their years, the Sentinels can look back at their 29-9 record and see that clearly.

Chatt Prep's impressive year ended with Friday's 53-43 loss to Hampton in the TSSAA Class 1A semifinals of the BlueCross Basketball State Championships. Two days after the Sentinels won their state tourney debut in a quarterfinal against Fayetteville at Middle Tennessee State University's Murphy Center, they were unable to stop senior Cadon Buckles, who scored 29 points to lead the Bulldogs into their first appearance in the title game since 1983.

Hampton (28-8), which also reached the Class A final in 1983 and won its lone state title in 1960, will face Middleton (30-1) — a 66-50 semifinal winner against University School of Johnson City — on Saturday at the Murphy Center.

As for the Sentinels, who had no upperclassmen on the roster as the state's youngest boys' high school basketball team, there was nothing to hang their heads about — even if they must wait until next year to make the next big step.

They've taken plenty of those already. Chatt Prep's first win as a program came on Jan. 10, 2022, and just 14 months later, Collins' team was making a huge splash in Murfreesboro.

“I told them all after the game, 'We will bounce back like we do all the time. We will be back here,'” Collins said. “My philosophy is we don’t take losses, we take tough lessons. The expectations for this team were very high for a young group of kids. 

“They matured a lot quicker than most because they didn’t have any juniors or seniors to look up to. This was a great experience and chance for us to put our name on the map. We will be back in the gym tomorrow, because time flies.”

Helping lead the way for a 19-win improvement over last season’s 10-5 record was the sophomore guard duo of Eli Gaines and Ta’Suade Williams — the closest thing to veterans at Chatt Prep, an all-boys public charter school that opened in 2018 and won't have juniors until next school year.

The highlights for the Sentinels this season included championships in District 5-1A and Region 3-1A before beating Pickett County in overtime during the sectional round to earn their first state berth.

“To put our school on the map like we did feels really good,” said Williams, whose quick burst and finishing ability helped him score 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting in two games at state. “I am really glad we were able to stand out to everybody and show them that even though we are the youngest team in the state that we are still coming.

“This was really good for all of us to experience. We can’t get complacent moving forward.”

The Bulldogs provided one of those "tough lessons" Friday, when they were able to enforce their will by driving to the basket. They attempted just four shots from 3-point range and didn't make any of those, but they were an efficient 18-for-30 (60%) inside the arc. Buckles was 12-for-16 from 2-point range and 5-for-7 at the foul line, making his way to the hoop seemingly whenever he wanted.

His success was not out of nowhere — Buckles was a state Mr. Basketball finalist for Class 1A and entered Friday with a per-game average of more than 25 points — but it was coupled with solid contributions from his teammates, including Hayden Campbell's four blocks and game-high 10 rebounds, plus strong defense.

“Too many times we went over the top of ball screens and allowed Cadon to get in the paint,” Collins said. “Our defensive philosophy is to contain penetration and protect the paint, and that is what killed us today. Hats off to Hampton, too. They did a great job of applying pressure and taking us out of our offense for the most part.”

The Sentinels trailed 35-20 after three quarters before putting up 23 points in desperation during the fourth — too late to make a difference.

The 6-foot-4 Derrick Roberson scored a team-high 12 points and hit two 3-pointers, as did Gaines on his way to 11 points. Roberson also blocked four shots — all in the first half — and led the Sentinels with seven rebounds. Roberson and fellow freshmen Joel Bullis and De’Andre Turnbow finished the state tournament with five steals apiece.

“What this moment teaches us is to never take anything for granted,” Roberson said. “You never know when the last time you will be able to get out here and go play. We will learn from this and get even better.”

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