February 21, 2013

State playoffs: North Murray boys hold it together, make history

TUNNEL HILL — After watching his team’s 15-point halftime lead dwindle to a single bucket late in the third quarter, North Murray High School boys basketball coach Tim Ellis knew exactly what button to push.

And the key word was composure.

The Mountaineers never gave up the lead and hit 9 of 11 free throws in the final 2:33 of a 69-58 win against Hart County in the first round of the Class 3A state tournament Wednes-day night.

“I think we got a little too relaxed after halftime and getting a big lead, and they really turned it up,” Mountaineers senior guard Zach Sanford said. “Coach Ellis just told us to sort of regain our composure.”

The win was the first state tournament victory for the Mount-aineers, who lost in the first round of the Class 2A bracket a year ago. The No. 2 seed from Region 5-3A this season, North Murray advances to Saturday’s second round and will travel to metro Atlanta to take on Woodward Academy, the Region 6 champion and a 51-39 winner against Dawson County on Wednesday.

North Murray (21-7) took advantage of Hart County’s cold shooting in the first half, and a pair of Sanford 3-pointers to end the first half gave the Mountaineers a 34-19 lead. Most of the large crowd in North Murray’s spacious gym probably thought the game was over.

But Hart County (13-16) found its shooting touch and used its press to force nine North Murray turnovers in the quarter. After going 1-for-9 from behind the 3-point line in the first half, the Bulldogs were 4-for-8 in the third quarter and Jimiyon Jones’ 3-pointer put the finishing touches on an 18-4 run that cut the North Murray lead to 42-40.

“They sped us up in the third quarter and we didn’t play with a lot of composure,” Ellis said. “We haven’t had a breakdown like that in a long time. But to our credit, they settled down and didn’t panic and they regained their composure.”

Zach Vess, who picked up his second foul late in the first quarter and never saw the floor in the second, ended the third period with a thundering dunk that brought the crowd to its feet and seemingly set the tone for the final quarter.

North Murray’s lead never fell to less than three points after a 15-foot jumper by Austen Horn to start the fourth quarter, and the Mountaineers finally started getting easy baskets off of their press-breaker attack.

“I think I stayed in our zone press a little too long,” Hart County coach Eddie McCurley said. “We started it to try and get them fatigued a little without having to go straight man, but I think we were the ones that lost our legs a little bit. North Murray did a good job of adjusting, and we had our chances to take the lead and couldn’t do it.”

North Murray got off to a hot start at the beginning, with Vess scoring seven of his game-high 23 points in the first six minutes of the game as the Mountaineers took a 13-7 lead. Things kept getting better even after Vess collected his second foul. Drew Mosteller scored five straight points early in the second quarter, and North Murray led 20-10.

But Hart County responded and scored nine straight to cut the lead back to a point, and Ellis hit the floor for a timeout.

That was when Sanford found his shooting touch. The senior guard hit a 3-pointer with 3:08 left in the half to spark a 14-0 run to end the quarter. He had nine points during the run.

“I was scared after Zach (Vess) picked up his second foul, but we actually were able to extend the lead,” Ellis said. “Our guys really held their composure, especially late in the first half. Sanford has been playing really well and really consistent for us, and when (Vess) went out, he stepped it up.”

Sanford finished with 13 points, while Brady Swilling had 10 points and nine rebounds.

Jones led Hart County with 15 points, while three other players were in double figures — Trae Gaines (13), Joricus Brewer (12) and Austin Adams (11).

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