By Rick Sheek
The drought is over, and the Lady Highlanders rode some stifling defense to accomplish that feat.
Cloudland’s girls are headed back to the Class A state basketball tournament in Murfreesboro for the first time in five years. They disposed of Tellico Plains 56-36 in Saturday night’s Sectional round at Sonny Smith Gymnasium.
“It was just big for these girls,” Cloudland coach Matt Birchfield said. “They’ve been working hard, and these seniors got to see it. They just put so much time in this thing to get there.
“Big goal for them, and it’s exciting for them what they did.”
Brooke Rhodes, the Highlanders’ junior center, hit 15 points, hauled in 10 rebounds, came up with two steals, four assists and four blocked shots. She drew the defensive assignment on Tennessee Wesleyan-signee Sarah McKinnon, who totaled 13 points and 11 boards.
“She’s the best competition I’ve went up against this year, so I knew I had to step up,” Rhodes said. “She made some open shots. It was back and forth a lot between us both.”
Sophomore forward Courtney Wilson, besides scoring 10 points, had eight rebounds and two steals.
“It was a tough game, but we came back and wanted it more than they did, I think,” Wilson said. “We played good defense and we got more rebounds. I think we blocked out on the boards really good, and we just wanted it.”
Indeed, Cloudland (32-4) held a 26-22 edge on the glass.
The Lady Bears (25-8) led 11-10 after one period, but found themselves down 24-15 at the break. The Highlanders rode a 11-0 streak to gain the upper hand.
Heading in the fourth quarter, Tellico trailed 40-27.
“We talked about it all week,” Birchfield said. “Our defense has got to win us ball games, and I thought our team defense the last two games has been terrific guarding them. They’ve got them a good point guard and a great post player, and I thought our defense was just terrific tonight.”
Holding the Bears to nine points in the final period ensured the outcome.
“We prepared for them the past two days,” Rhodes said. “We knew what they were going to do. We did a good job holding them down.”
Birchfield first took the program to the state a decade ago, the program’s inaugural trip. The Highlanders last made it in 2007, and one other team in between.
“Everybody’s wanted it,” Wilson said. “We’ve had a target on our back the whole season, and we just wanted it. We wanted it more than anybody.
“We just came out and played. We weren’t nervous at all, just played and we got it.”
The coach appreciated the effort he got from Rhodes in not letting McKinnon cut loose. Rhodes kept her cool despite picking up a technical in the fourth quarter.
“I thought she did a very good job,” Birchfield said. “We wanted to pressure and we wanted to get her in foul trouble, but she’s a good player. I thought we did a good job on her.
“Our whole team did. To hold their point guard and post player to 36, we were happy. If we could keep them in the 30s, I thought we were good.”
The team’s inside star, who transferred in from Watauga High School in Boone, obviously has no regrets about her move to Cloudland.
“I’ve never been to a state tournament,” Rhodes said. “So coming down here and the first year here, awesome girls, awesome team – going to Murfreesboro, it should be awesome. We’re excited.”