By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
GALAX, Va. —
Down by 17 points at halftime, the Bland County Bears took a gut check and scrambled to a 60-58 win over the Auburn Eagles on Friday night in the semifinals of Region C, Division 1 basketball.
“I think just about everything fell in our favor in the second half,” said Rich Hankins, the veteran coach of Bland County (13-10), which assured itself of a state playoff berth with the victory on the Galax High School court.
His son Chase Hankins scored 23 points, going 11 for 14 from the free throw line. Fellow senior Asher Dillow scored 13 points, sinking five of the Bears' six three-pointers.
For Auburn (14-12), Jessie Rutledge scored 11 first-half points but had only two in the second half. Jake Shelburne led the Eagles with 14 points and Marshall Jones had 10.
The game was tied three times in the first five minutes, but Bland County then embarked on the first of two long scoring droughts in the first half and Auburn scored eight straight.
The Eagles led by 16-11 after one quarter, and limited the Bears to just two field goals and two foul shots in the next eight minutes, taking a 34-17 halftime advantage. Bland County finished the quarter going 0 for 8 from the field.
Auburn's game in the paint led to second- and third-chance efforts, and things looked bleak.
Rich Hankins said, “The first half, we were just giving up so much inside position, and at times we lost our men defensively and they got easy stickbacks.”
But things were about to change.
Dillow said, “We went in the locker room at halftime, and everybody was down on themselves. I started thinking, 'We've been together since we were probably in the fourth, fifth grade doing this.' I just looked at everybody and said, 'We ain't gonna go out like this, 17 points (down). With the shooters we've got, and the way we can fill it up, I know we can come back. We came out and played hard and got it done.”
Chase Hankins said, “We came out and we knew we had to pick ourselves back up. We knew we had to battle, put some pressure on them. And then they started turning the ball over a little bit, with the pressure, and we just ran away with it after that.”
In the first half, he said, “We were rushing things, we weren't taking good shots … . Once we started settling into the game, once we started playing defense better, we got into it.”
Auburn's Shelburne scored from the paint with two minutes gone in the second half and the Eagles had their largest lead, 36-17. However, the Bland County defense exerted itself. About a minute later, Darryl Clark pulled off a steal, tossed the ball to Dillow, and he fed Chase Hankins for a layup at the start of a decisive 16 to 2 run that cut the Bears' deficit to 40-34 with 22.3 seconds left in the third.
The Eagles were 3 for 9 from the floor in the quarter, committed six turnovers, and had started to unravel, while Bland County matched their first-half output in the third quarter alone.
In a span of 23 seconds, Chase Hankins slung an off-balance shot into the hoop from the paint to close the score to 44-39, and Dillow hit a trey from the top of the arc to bring the Bears within two points of the lead.
A pair of free throws by Chase Hankins knotted the game at 46-46, and Dillow followed with two straight three-pointers and a driving layup for a 54-48 lead with 1:57 left.
Twice Auburn closed the gap to a single point – 56-55 on Rutledge's field goal in the paint, and 59-58 when Levi Bower hit his only field goal of the night, a trey from the top of the key with nine seconds left.
They got one more chance when Bland County threw away the ball with 4.3 seconds left, but Rutledge traveled with the ball – Auburn's 15th and final turnover of the half.
Rich Hankins said that forcing Auburn turnovers “gave us some opportunities to get out and run, and get an easy basket or two, and (we) got some confidence about it. We had zero confidence until about the midway point of the third quarter. Then our shots started falling and before you know it, we had all the momentum on our side.”
Clark was fouled with 0.6 seconds left and made one of two free throws for the final margin. A stunned Auburn team slowly went to its bench while the Bland County fans erupted in cheers.
Chase Hankins, who went 3 for 4 from the foul line in the final 53 seconds, said, “I just knew I had to attack the rim more, and go hard, and hope that I got the foul, and then finish it.”
When he faced the free throws with the game in the balance, he said, “I just knew I had to be calm and knock 'em down. We needed them. They were some big shots. Had to be there for my team.”
Dillow said about the frantic last couple of minutes, “I was a nervous wreck, the whole time. I'm just glad to get out of here with a win.”
He said, “I've got to give all the credit to our bigs tonight. No matter what happened, they kept their heads up. They kept fighting. They were physical. There, down the stretch, they really just took it upon themselves to keep their men out of the lane. They did a heck of a job.”
Chase Hankins said that in his four-year varsity basketball career, “It's probably the toughest one so far, for sure. They (Auburn) were tough. They're a good team. They play really hard.”
Bland County advances to tonight's Region C final at Galax, taking on Parry McCluer (20-5), which defeated Covington 55-43 in the first semifinal of Friday evening.
“I think we've got a good chance. We're going to come out strong,” Chase Hankins said. Gesturing toward his team's section of the stands, he said, “We've got all of Bland County behind us, too.”
At Galax High School
Levi Bower 1 3-4 6, Caleb Link 2 0-0 4, Jake Shelburne 4 6-10 14, Jessie Rutledge 5 2-3 13, Dustin Simpkins 0 3-5 3, Tanner Keen 1 0-0 2, Marshall Jones 5 0-0 10, Michael Hinkley 3 0-0 6. Totals 21 14-22 58.
BLAND COUNTY (13-10)
Asher Dillow 9 0-0 23, Jonah Miller 1 0-0 2, Tyler White 1 0-0 3, Darryl Clark 2 1-4 5, Chase Hankins 6 11-14 23, John Miller 2 0-0 4. Totals 21 12-18 60.
Auburn.......................................16 18 6 18 — 58
Bland County.............................11 6 17 26 — 60
Three-point goals – AUB 2 (Bower 1, Rutledge 1); BC 6 (Dillow 5, T. White 1). Fouled out – Simpkins. Technical fouls – none.