Had the climb not been so steep Tuesday evening, Polk County might well have engineered another late comeback to maintain its unbeaten start to the season.
The Wolverines erased most of a 20-point halftime deficit, but not all, allowing Mitchell to escape with a 77-68 victory in a key Western Highlands Conference matchup at Polk.
The setback dropped Polk County (4-1, 3-1) into second place in the WHC, with Mitchell (3-4, 2-2) now a game behind the Wolverines in the race-within-a-race to be the league’s top 1A school and earn the accompanying automatic playoff berth.
The Wolverines preserved their unspoiled record with a second-half rally Friday at Avery, but simply faced too large a gap Tuesday to overcome. Save for a tie at 4-4, Mitchell led from start to finish, racing to a 22-9 lead in the first quarter and a 45-25 gap at the half.
While Polk County struggled to find points in the opening two quarters, the Mountaineers clicked offensively, at first pushing the ball inside against Polk’s man-to-man defense, then hitting from the outside once the Wolverines switched to a zone.
“We’ve got to stop these slow starts,” said Polk County head coach Lemont Jones. “We played hard for three quarters. We didn’t show up in the first quarter.”
The margin still stood at 20, 51-31, in the third period before Polk County began to find its offensive rhythm. Kanye Staley came off the bench and had four points in a run that cut the deficit to 14, and the Wolverines got as close as 13 before ending the period down 58-43.
Polk, though, still trailed by 13 points at 69-56 with 1:38 remaining. Then things got very interesting.
Dominique Carson and Bryson Edwards hit back-to-back layups to cut the gap to 69-60. A Mitchell free throw made it 70-60, but Chan Barber answered with two free throws with 1:08 left to cut the lead to eight.
The Wolverines forced a turnover, and Staley calmly hit a 3-pointer from the corner to make it 70-65 with 54 seconds left and giving Polk nine points in just 39 seconds.
Polk County’s Kris Littlejohn then forced a turnover, and the Wolverines had two shots to make it a one-possession game. Both, though, missed, as did a 3-point attempt on the Wolverines’ next possession, and Mitchell sealed the win at the foul line.
The Mountaineers finished the night 26-of-35 from the free-throw line. Senior Cauis Arrington was 12-of-15 at the stripe as part of his 24-point effort.
“We fought back, showed a little fight,” Jones said. “That’s the only good thing I can say about it. That’s a 1A opponent, and we’ve got to win that one.”
Carson finished with 21 points to lead Polk, with Tyler Staley adding 16 and Shaq Wingo scoring 10. Edwards had eight points, with Kanye Staley scoring four, Wesley Royster and Barber each scoring three and Brett Bagwell adding two.
The Wolverines journey Friday to Mountain Heritage to face the conference-leading Cougars.