By Maurice Patton
COLUMBIA – Over the course of his team’s nine-game winning streak, Nick Campbell had expressed concern with Columbia Central’s penchant for building and blowing big leads.
The bad habit bit the top-seeded Lions – hard — in Wednesday’s District 8-AAA Tournament semifinal matchup with visiting Tullahoma.
A 14-point cushion with six minutes to play wasn’t enough as the Wildcats went 15-for-15 from the free throw line down the stretch to seize a 66-63 victory.
With the win, Tullahoma – seeded fourth – will travel to Coffee County for Friday’s district tourney championship game and will host a Region 4-AAA quarterfinal.
Central (19-7) will host Lincoln County in the consolation game Friday, then travel to open region tournament play next week.
“Going 13 days without a game is tough, but we can’t really use that as an excuse,” Campbell said after the Lions lost for the first time since a 59-57 defeat at Tullahoma on Jan. 12. “We were up 14. We’ve got to close games out.
“We’ve talked about it all year. (When) we get up double digits, we’ve got to extend that lead.”
To the Lions’ credit, they rallied from a double-digit deficit themselves to seemingly take control of the contest.
Tullahoma (12-9) closed the first quarter with 15 unanswered points to go ahead 21-11, but Central went on its own 15-2 second-period run to lead 31-27 at halftime.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth in the first quarter. We responded pretty well,” Campbell said.
The Lions ran that margin to as many as nine points in the opening three minutes of the third quarter, led 50-40 to open the fourth quarter and went up 56-42 at the 6:34 mark on a transition layup by freshman Jordan Davis.
“We changed defenses,” Tullahoma coach Jason Welch said. “We had a defense we had worked on, but we hadn’t used it in a game. They probably weren’t prepared for it because we’d never ran it. We had guys that sold out and made plays.”
The defense – a 1-2-2 trap – keyed the Wildcats’ comeback, as Central struggled to take care of the ball.
“They picked up the pressure, and we took out foot off the gas,” Campbell said. “We turned it over like crazy. Kudos to them. They played well.”
Contributing to the Tullahoma comeback – or the Central collapse – was a charging call on Q Martin with 1:34 remaining. The Lions led 61-57 when Martin drove off the right wing to the rim and converted, but was called for his fifth foul.
The visitors went to the other end and got a three-point play from Joe Duncan, then went ahead on a pair of Krys Uselton free throws with 17.9 seconds to play. Uselton added four more foul shots to finish with a game-high 29 points, while Duncan added 18.
“It’s a big step for our kids to be able to come win a game here,” Welch said, mindful of Central’s 60-48 win on Feb. 5. “To me, it’s still something when you come to Columbia and win a game.”
Davis, who led Central with 16 points off the bench, echoed Campbell’s concerns.
“You’ve got to keep going; you can’t slow the tempo down when we’re up,” he said. “If we’re up 10, we’ve got to get up 20.
“We’ve got to learn how to be tough and mentally focused in those situations. We can’t take plays off.”
Martin added 15 points before fouling out, with Bubba Perkins scoring another 14.
Tullahoma boys 66, Columbia Central 63
T 21 6 13 26 – 66
C 11 20 19 13 – 63
Tullahoma (66) – Ethan Hargrove 2, Ryan Scott 2, Krys Uselton 29, Jacob Dixon 6, Will Partin 4, Joe Duncan 18, Brody Melton 5
Columbia Central (63) – Cam Johnson 7, Demetrius McCoy 4, Q Martin 15, Bubba Perkins 14, Omari Franklin 2, Roni Bailey 5, Jordan Davis 16
3-pointers – Tullahoma 3 (Uselton, Dixon 2), Columbia Central 8 (Johnson 2, Martin 2, Perkins 2, Bailey, Davis)
Photos by Ric Beu / SM-Tn Sports