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Pisgah boys win hard-fought County Clash

Jan. 15—The Pisgah Bears continued their run of dominance in the County Clash, winning their seventh straight game in the series 66-52 on Friday in Waynesville.

"Hats off to Tuscola," Pisgah head coach Jonathan Whitson said. "They came in and played hard — extremely hard. They hit us in the mouth a couple of times in the first half, especially in the second quarter. It rattled us a little bit. Their kids played extremely hard. I'm proud of our guys for fighting back and overcoming that and ultimately pulling out the win."

The win was the tightest the series has been since the seven-game winning streak first began in 2019 with a 51-48 victory for the Bears. Over the course of the run, the Bears have outscored the Mountaineers by an average score of 80-57.

"When you have rivalry games, you throw records out, you throw all the stuff out, and you just go with it," Whitson said.

The win also snapped a three-game skid for the Bears, which included two in-conference losses.

"We have to stay true to ourselves, stay grounded and stay humble," Whitson said. We kind of got away from that a little bit over the break, but I'm seeing it start to come back."

While much of the game was a back-and-forth slugfest, Whitson said that didn't get to him or his team too much as they were in the moment more than scoreboard-watching.

"You get caught up in the moment," Whitson said. "You trust your guys. You get stressed, but you don't think about that. You're in the moment."

Bears take early lead

The teams traded buckets to open the game. Tuscola senior Peyton Ollis was first on the stat line after an offensive rebound. Pisgah Junior Aaron Clark and Tuscola senior Jed West followed the bucket up with quick scores of their own to make it a 4-2 Tuscola lead.

From there, Pisgah went on an 8-0 run to take its first lead of the game. The run included an emphatic and-one conversion from senior Cadden Davis against the 6-foot-6 Jeremy Horton and was capped by a three-pointer from junior Sawyer Belue.

Tuscola found a bucket from Horton before Davis stepped back into the spotlight with another and-one conversion.

The Bears got their lead as high as nine in the first quarter, but the Mountaineers battled back in the frame and ended the first quarter down just 18-13.

Technical foul draws jeers

The second frame began with Horton and Clark trading a pair of buckets before things slowed down a little. Neither team found a bucket for a few possessions before Tuscola found a run of its own. Horton, Ollis and West each contributed in an 8-0 run for the Mountaineers that gave Tuscola the lead back at 23-20.

Part of the run displayed both roster's passion. After a rough foul from West under the basket, sophomore Mason Putnam got up, yelling at his counterpart. This drew a technical foul as the referees attempted to keep the chippiness from snowballing.

The technical foul no doubt lit a fire under an already rabid crowd. The fans in gold and black celebrated the infraction, while those in black and red were quick to loudly jeer the official.

"I think we might've gotten out of it a little bit there in the second quarter and had to rein them back in," Whitson said. "The gym was packed. It's a great atmosphere. Our student section was outstanding. They had a good student section. I'm excited that they get to experience atmospheres like this. Not every high school is able to do that."

The crowd was loud all night, but the technical foul was the loudest moment of the game.

"I really am happy that they get to experience something like this," Whitson said. "Teams in Western North Carolina, they don't have crowds like this. With Tuscola and us, whenever we get together, we could be playing ping pong, and we'd probably sell the place out."

Despite not drawing crowds the same size as the crown jewel of the County Clash series — football — the crowd was arguably even louder.

"Football, they have a bigger crowd than we do have here," Whitson said. "With basketball, you're in a room that's enclosed, so it can seem a lot louder."

The teams continued to trade shots back and forth for the remainder of the period. Right before the halftime buzzer, Belue got a pass from junior Dominick Messer — sinking a three to send the teams to the locker room with Tuscola leading 33-30.

The shot was one of many impressive sharpshooting showings from Belue. The junior ended the night with 24 points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals. Fifteen of those points came off of threes, but his own scoring was not the only impact Belue had on the game.

Throughout the duration of the game, Belue showed his stroke from NBA range on the three-point shot. This forced defenders to step out and guard him and left larger openings in the defense.

"That's huge because it extends the floor," Whitson said. "It brings the defense out and opens up the middle where we can drive and kick it to the opposite wing, and those guys can knock it down too."

Moore sparks the Bears

Belue extended his hot streak into the second half. He hit two free throws and a three-pointer to give Pisgah a 35-33 lead. Tuscola fought back to a 38-36 lead before Pisgah junior Kenyon Moore drilled a shot to tie the game up.

West followed that up with a three-pointer to put Tuscola back on top, but Moore wasn't done yet — draining a three of his own to tie it up.

While Moore showed his ability on the offensive end on the pair of possessions, his strongest asset is defensive prowess.

"Kenyon [Moore] did really well for us," Whitson said. "He came in off the bench. He got in foul trouble, but he stayed in. He knocked down a two that tied up the game, and then he knocked down a three that was huge. His presence on the defensive side with the defensive rebounds and cleaning up the glass on that end really helped us seal it. Plus, he made it harder when they did get it inside to finish over him."

The buckets from Moore sparked the Bears, as Pisgah went on a 12-3 run to close out the third quarter with a 53-44 lead.

"We knocked down some shots finally in the second half," Whitson said. "We had open looks in the first half. We just weren't hitting them."

Pisgah ices the game

The fourth quarter saw Pisgah outscore Tuscola 13-8, the game's lowest-scoring frame. Both teams looked to lock up defensively, and it showed.

This was despite foul trouble on both ends, but even more so on the home bench. The teams combined for 40 fouls, with five Tuscola players having at least four fouls.

This played into Pisgah's hand as the team looked to attack the hoop to help set up the three-point shot.

"We just want to attack and then kick," Whitson said. "If they foul, that's good, but we don't want to settle for that. We know that we have to knock down outside shots to be there at the end."

While Belue led the way for the Bears, Clark and Davis also broke into double-digit scoring with 13 and 12, respectively. Putnam and Messer co-led the team in rebounds with seven each.

On the other side, West led the Mountaineers with 15 points, followed by Ollis with 13 and Horton with 12. Horton also had the team lead in rebounds with 10 to complete his double-double, while Ollis grabbed seven for second on the team.

The two student sections had a bit of their own competition in the stands, with several chants directed at the other section.

There were the classics, such as "We can't hear you," but Tuscola's section also chanted "Let's play football," referencing Tuscola's 27-10 win over Pisgah on the gridiron this year. The win marked Tuscola's only win over Pisgah in a team sport so far this season.

Mounties fans responded with chants of, "Wait for baseball," alluding to the Mountaineers' 13-1 and 1-0 wins over the Bears on the diamond last year.

It seemed the Bears faithful had the final laugh, however, closing the night out with a "this is our house" chant in the closing minutes of the game.

The win moved Pisgah to 10-5 and 2-2 in conference play, while Tuscola dropped to 0-12 and 0-4 in Mountain 7 action.

Whitson said it will be essential to take the momentum from a hard-fought rivalry win and parlay that into more success the rest of this season.

"We just have to trust our process," he said. "If we play our way, I think the results will be the way we want them in the end. We can't just focus on the results because then you play other teams, and you fall back to old habits where you get exposed against better quality teams."