NEWLAND – Avery sizzled throughout the first quarter of Friday’s Western Highlands Conference tournament final.
Polk County then made the Vikings sweat through the final three.
The Wolverines’ run at a WHC tourney title fell just short Friday, stymied by the Vikings’ remarkable first-period shooting as Avery took a 73-62 win in the tourney championship game in Viking Gym.
After knocking off No. 3 Mountain Heritage and No. 2 Owen, sixth-seeded Polk County (7-18) did everything it could do to dethrone the top-seeded Vikings. But playing three games in four nights, all of them with long road trips, finally wore down the Wolverines just as much as the Vikings, who won their 41st straight game against a WHC opponent.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the fight we showed,” said Polk County head coach Josh McEntire. “I’ve never had a group that improved that much over the last three weeks of the season.
“We fought our butts off tonight.”
The concession stand in Avery’s octagon-shaped gym closed just before the start of the game, which meant everyone in the building got to see a sight they’ll not soon forget.
The Vikings (23-3) hit 5-of-5 3-pointers and, unofficially, 12-of-13 shots in the first quarter. Jump shots, layups, 3-pointers – everything Avery tossed up seemed to drop through no matter how well positioned Polk County’s defense.
The Vikings led 18-7 by the midpoint of the first period before closing with a 12-5 flurry to make it 30-12 at the end of the quarter. It would take Avery two-and-a-half quarters to score its next 30 points.
“That first quarter is one of the best quarters of basketball I’ve ever seen played,” McEntire said.
But Polk County, stunned by the flurry, collected its wits and began to fight back.
The Wolverines moved to a 3-2 zone to slow Avery’s offense and also scored the first eight points of the second quarter on 3-pointers by Jamal Wheeler and Daniel Painter and a Wes Mullis jumper, cutting the deficit to 30-20. Avery gathered itself briefly and stretched its lead back to 14, 38-24, at the break.
Polk County opened the third period with six straight points to get the deficit into single digits, then kept it that way until quarter’s end, heading into the fourth down 51-42.
Mullis hit a layup to open the final quarter, then Avery answered with two free throws before Wheeler scored four straight points to make it 53-48 with 6:20 left in the game. That, though, would be as close as Polk would get – Avery outscored Polk 7-0 over the next two minutes and never led by less than nine the rest of the way.
“I think we just ran out of gas,” McEntire said. “The no school days, three away games, playing back-to-back nights and we didn’t get home last night until midnight. Then look what happens if you’re the one seed. You get a bye, then get the early game and get some rest.
“But that’s a reward for a really good season.”
At 5-17 entering the week. Polk County knew it likely needed to win the WHC tournament to earn a state 2A playoff berth. Brackets will be announced Saturday, and McEntire doesn’t expect the Wolverines to be among the qualifiers.
If that holds true, Friday’s game marked the final Polk County game for Davis Derkach, Painter (9 points), Mullis (12 points) and Wheeler, who scored 34 points and drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer in likely his final shot as a Wolverine.
“I’m proud of our seniors. They kept fighting until the end,” McEntire said. “We knew two weeks ago that we were out of the playoffs unless we won the tournament, so we’ve stayed focused on that and just kept fighting.
“One thing we did all week was never get too high or never get too low. We stayed on an even keel and played our game.”
Dillion Overholt scored four points and Holden Owens added three for Polk County, which placed Mullis and Wheeler on the all-tournament team. Avery’s Jacob Waldroop had 25 points in the final and was named the tourney’s most valuable player.