By Jamie Combs
GRAY — For Little Milligan’s boys basketball team, it was getting more hairy than Cousin Itt.
Outscored 15-2 to begin their game with Gray, the Buffaloes were dealt a 15-point, second-quarter deficit on Tuesday. Looking outclassed, Little Milligan put its hopes on the able shoulders of Jose Velazquez and pulled out a 51-49 victory in the Area 1-A consolation game at Ridgeview Elementary.
“It’s great to be recognized with the elite — the Washington County teams and, you know,” said Buffaloes coach J.R. Campbell. “We just want to be mentioned with the good teams, and I want the boys to have this taste. And now we just go on. You remember the St. Louis Cardinals, down to one pitch in (Game 6 of the World Series). That’s what I told them, we’re the St. Louis Cardinals. Now we’ve got a chance again — everybody’s even-steven.
“It’s good to play a week longer, just like high school. If you get to play a week longer, you feel like you’re somebody.”
With a third-place finish, the Buffaloes claimed their first-ever berth in the East Tennessee Sectional — which begins this Saturday in Pigeon Forge.
“We joined the TMSAA this year,” Campbell said, “and I wanted these boys to get this taste — just to get to go down there, you know.”
In regards to Little Milligan clinching its prized road trip, much is owed to Velazquez, who pumped in 32 points, yanked down 11 rebounds and totaled four steals.
“It’s just amazing to win in a tournament,” Velazquez said. “It’s awesome. We love to travel everywhere and play new people. It just makes us better.”
Said Buffaloes assistant coach C.G. Hall: “He played pee-wee (ball) last year; he had just one year of experience. I helped him out in a league I did this summer, then I worked with him during the year. He’s a seventh-grader, and this is his first year of playing middle school ball.”
Coached by Elizabethton High alum Todd Stevens, the Knights came out demonstrating undeniable prowess. Wreaking havoc with full-court pressure, Gray got seven points from Alex Looney as it mounted its 15-2 advantage. Looney scored 11 of his team-best 20 during the opening quarter, which ended with Little Milligan trailing 21-9.
A Justin Turner bucket provided the Knights their largest lead at 25- 10, but the Buffaloes started to reverse their fortunes by closing the first half on a 14-4 run — making it a 29-24 game. Dakota Crumley and Velazquez had four points apiece in the run, with Charlie Butler and Tim Hartley each draining a 3-pointer.
“We’re better inside,” Campbell said. “We’ve got a real good inside game. Of course, one of our key cogs isn’t here, but we do have Jose and Dakota. I thought if we didn’t go crazy, we could catch up — because they haven’t been in this spot either.
“I had to scold (the Buffaloes) a little bit, get them a little bit more scared of me.”
Minus John Paul Russell (illness) on Tuesday, Little Milligan saw Velazquez truly take charge after intermission. He tallied 22 points in the second half, with 13 coming in the final quarter — when the Buffaloes got over the hump.
Velazquez has been riding high in recent games.
“He’s been on quite a run, plus he’s such a great kid,” Campbell said. “The kid just wants to play, and nobody deserves it more than Jose.”
Down 37-34 entering the fourth period, the Buffaloes acquired their first lead (39-37) on a Crumley bucket. Gray was up by a point before Little Milligan generated a 9-0 surge (Velazquez scored eight) to snare a 50-42 advantage with 55 seconds left.
Refusing to fold, the Knights sandwiched two Jayden Stevens free throws and a Looney trey around a Buffaloes turnover. Following a traveling violation on Little Milligan, Looney had a behind-the-arc shot roll inside the rim and out. Justin Carter got the rebound, missed underneath, grabbed the ball again and then converted to pull Gray within a point (50-49).
Time, however, was Gray’s greatest enemy at this juncture. The Knights quickly fouled Butler, but just 1.9 seconds remained. Butler dropped in a charity toss, was off the mark on the second attempt and Kirby Connell tried a bulk-of-the-court shot that Crumley swatted down after it traveled a short distance.
“Gray was coming off a heck of a ballgame (vs. West View) that they played last night, and I was hoping they wouldn’t play back-to-back real good games,” Campbell said. “And they just about did. But this is our turn.”
Crumley added seven points, seven boards, four steals and three blocked shots to the winning cause. While Butler accounted for seven points of his own, Hartley rounded out Little Milligan’s scoring with five.
For the Knights, Carter amassed 10 points, a half-dozen rebounds and four steals. Stevens was good for eight points and five assists, picking up four thefts along the way.
The two teams combined for 43 turnovers (Gray 23, LM 20).