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By GOOSE LINDSAY
The Region 2-A championship game turned into the Wesley Rather Show Thursday night as the Oliver Springs' senior guard torched the Harriman Blue Devils defense for five three-pointers and 28 points in leading the Bobcats to 56-47 victory.
"I was feeling good one I got going tonight," Rather said following the game. "It's been 12 years since Oliver Springs had been to a region championship game, but I told our guys before the game we would get it if we just stayed focused and played hard."
With the victory, Oliver Springs now advances to the sectional round of the playoffs Monday at Hampton. A victory over the District 1 champion Bulldogs would then give the Bobcats a berth in the TSSAA Class A State Tournament.
"Our goal all season was to make the sub state game no matter where that road took us," Bobcat head coach Tony Ingram said. "I know nothing about Hampton right now, but we'll start working on them right away. I know we'll have to play well if we want to win."
Oliver Springs was focused on the three-point arc at the beginning of the contest. The Bobcats opened the game with a three-pointer from Lucas Tarver then Rue Eskridge and Rather also dialed long distance early as the Bobcats grabbed an 11-5 lead with 2:47 left in the first period.
Harriman, however, survived the early assault and chipped away by attacking the basket. The Blue Devils closed to within 13-9 after eight minutes of play thanks to four straight points from Darius Gallaher then the Blue Devils opened the second period with a 7-2 run capped by a three-pointer from Ben Davis that gave Harriman a 16-15 lead with 5:58 left in the first half.
Harriman's lead didn't last long as Rather soon caught fire. Rather buried three triples in a span of 61 seconds and those three-pointers gave the Bobcats a 25-19 lead with 4:22 left in the first half.
"You can't give a shooter like Rather the open looks we gave him," Harriman head coach Jeff King said. "We allowed him to catch and wind up two straight possessions and once you let him do that he gets in a rhythm and it's over."
Harriman did recover from the onslaught of threes and ended the first half outscoring the Bobcats 10-7 to pull within 32-29 at halftime. Harriman freshman Xavier Howard did the most damage in the late run by scoring six points.
Although Oliver Springs led at halftime, the Bobcats didn't feel very good about how they had played.
"We had a couple of keys coming into the game that we thought were important," Ingram said. "We knew we had to protect the ball and stop them from driving to the basket. We didn't do either very well in the first half. We did a better job in the second half."
"We were getting sliced up in the first half, especially by their left-handers Dimitrique (Inman) and Xavier (Howard)," Rather added. "We were supposed to be giving help and making them shoot from the corners. I was the one not dropping in every time and making them kick it out.
"Coach told us all year that we'd win with defense. We did a better job in the second half of cutting them off and that was the difference."
Harriman also made some defensive adjustments at halftime. The result was a defensive battle in the third quarter with play getting chippy at times.
Harriman opened the second half with a 6-0 run to take a 35-32 lead with 4:16 left in the third quarter. Oliver Springs also had starters Lucas Tarver and Tyler Harper on the bench with injuries or foul trouble. Harriman, however, wasn't able to capitalize as Oliver Springs ended the period on an 8-2 run to take a 40-36 lead into the final period of play.
"We battled sickness and injuries all year," Ingram said. "The experience those other guys got helped us tonight."
Howard opened the final period with a jumper that pulled Harriman to within 40-38, but Rather came up with a steal that led to a three-point play from Eskridge then Rather buried a trey that made the score 46-38 with 6:21 left in the contest.
From there, Rather matched Harriman point-for-point until the Bobcats took a 53-45 lead into the final 1:41 of the game. Harriman never got closer than six points down the stretch as the Bobcats celebrated their first region title of the new millennium.
Besides scoring 28 points, Rather also had seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks for the Bobcats. Tarver (11 points, 6 rebounds) and Eskridge (10 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals) also scored in double figures for Oliver Springs.
Inman led Harriman with 11 points and three assists while Howard added 10 points.
Despite the loss, Harriman's season isn't over. Like Oliver Springs, the Blue Devils will play in Monday's sectional as they host Region 1 champion Cloudland.
"We made too many mistakes both offensively and defensively to win tonight. We'll have to play much better if we are to beat Cloudland," King said. They have a great team. They're ultra quick and have five guys that can shoot the three. They also have the best Class A player in East Tennessee in Logan Morgan. It's going to take a Herculean effort from our guys to win, but we're due a good game."
Harriman (47) Inman 11, Gallaher 9, Steinmetz 7, Davis 5, Howard 10, Love 1, Sawyer 4.
Oliver Springs (56) Rather 18, Tarver 11, Eskridge 10, Miller 4, Harper 1, Taylor 2.