BLAIRSVILLE — United, the surprise upstart in the Heritage Conference early on, kept up with a more heralded Blairsville team. It was the Bobcats, shouldering higher expectations this year, who managed to pull away in the early-season showdown, defeating United, 66-59, in a game between previously unbeaten boys’ basketball teams Tuesday night.
Blairsville (5-0, 3-0 Heritage Conference) built a lead in the second quarter and was ahead by as many as 17 early in the third. United (3-1, 2-1) cut the deficit to as little as three before the Bobcats put the game away at the free throw line late.
“These guys are a lot of fun to be around,” said Mark DeMarines, a 2006 Blairsville graduate in his first season as the Bobcats’ head coach. “Last year, being an assistant on this team, I saw a lot of potential — a lot of areas we needed to work on, but a lot of strengths. That was a group that had a lot to offer. Once I found out I had the job, I couldn’t have been happier. Things have been going great here. We’re having a lot of fun together and, so far 5-0, we’ll take it.”
“We’ve been playing hard,” Blairsville junior forward Troy Williams said.
“We’ve been practicing hard, so I guess that’s carrying over to the games. That’s why we’re starting out this well.”
Williams scored a game-high 23 points for Blairsville. That included some of the night’s biggest baskets. In the fourth quarter Williams was 4 of 4 from the free throw line, where the Bobcats made sure United wouldn’t complete its comeback bid. As a team, Blairsville was 8 of 8 from the line in the fourth quarter, and it made 6 of 6 in the last 1:39.
“It counted a lot,” Williams said. “We were focusing better in the second half. We’ve been shooting a lot in practice, too, so that’s heading over to the games, performing better at the free throw line.”
“Game 1, Game 2 this year, we were 13 of 32, 14 of 22, really weak at the line,” DeMarines said. “That’s something we’ve been stressing a lot, and these guys have been working hard. The credit goes to them to step up and actually bang them down, especially down the stretch.”
It was especially big considering the foul trouble Blairsville was in. The Bobcats had two players foul out and a few more playing with three or four fouls. They sent the Lions to the line for 15 shots in the second half, and United made 11.
A 1-21 team last season, United stormed out of the gate by winning its first three games. Just sticking with the Bobcats, let alone having a chance in the fourth quarter to beat them, was another good sign for the team, even if it ended in the Lions’ first defeat.
What’s different this season?
“Attitude,” United coach Tyler Stokes said. “Winning is contagious. We got off to a nice start. The kids have always had the talent, but it’s the attitude change from last year to this year, from a 1-21 team to right now a 3-1 team. There are a lot of good things, and we can continue to build on this.”
Blairsville forced a fast tempo in the first half to build a 41-30 halftime lead and take a 49-32 lead midway through the third quarter. United was able to slow the game down and get to the free throw line itself, and the Lions got back within striking distance.
“The kids kind of dug themselves a hole a little bit in that second quarter and the third quarter in the first part,” Stokes said. “We were down as many as 17 at one point. It’s tough for anybody to come back from that. But we’ll learn from this.
“When I called that timeout in the third quarter, I said, ‘This isn’t the team I’ve seen the last three games. Who wants to step up? Who wants to do something?’ They responded after that and cut that lead in the third and fourth quarters.”
Jake Beacker scored 14 points to lead the Lions. Weylon McGeary had 12 and James Currie added 10 off the bench. Beacker dished out six assists.
“They were working the ball well,” Stokes said. “Jake definitely is a very fast point guard, at times too fast for my liking, but he does move the ball fast and is good in the open floor at seeing things.”
“They’re scrappy,” DeMarines said of the Lions. “They get up and down the court. Coach Stokes really has them on his side. They work from the starting whistle to the end, and that’s always a dangerous team to play, a team that’s going to come and just get dirty for 32 minutes. You’ve got to hang in there with them. You’ve got to weather the storms.”
That’s what the Bobcats did when Alex Horchar and Colton McMillan were called for their respective fifth fouls in the fourth quarter. Williams stepped up and made two big free throws, then Cameron Livingston and Ryan Horchar did the same to deny another big United win.
McMillan finished with 14 points, and Livingston scored 10.
“We’re coming off a 9-14 (season), so these guys have really committed themselves to the gym and trying to get better,” DeMarines said. “We’ve got a great group. Everybody gets along at practice. We all have fun. We’re all after the same thing. We all just want to get a ‘W’ and see where it takes us.”