Murphy boys shock Cherokee for tourney title
Robbinsville – On paper, the Murphy Bulldogs had little hope as they entered the Smoky Mountain Conference tournament.
Seeded fourth in the annual showcase after finishing the season 5-18 (4-8 in division play), Murphy silenced the pundits all the way by defeating Swain County (No. 5 seed, 7-16) in the first round Feb. 14, the No. 1-seeded Hayesville Yellow Jackets (20-5) in the semifinals Feb. 18 and the No. 3-seeded Cherokee Braves (14-13) in a 64-58 finals thriller Friday night in Robbinsville.
“The kids have worked extremely hard over the last couple of months,” said Bulldogs head coach Erik Laney. “We came into this, looking at it as a fresh, new season, knowing that over the last month, we’ve seen a lot of maturity on the floor. Our No. 1 goal was to shock them.”
The Braves simply had no answers for Abram Abling’s first quarter, as the Murphy sophomore dropped 17 points in the period. The Bulldogs’ main offensive weapon throughout the campaign played a pivotal role in the Bulldogs seizing a 23-15 advantage by the end of the segment.
“We just came out to set the tone,” Abling said. “I wanted to work outside to open up the inside more in the later quarters. Everyone on the team contributed and played their role, to help us succeed.”
Cherokee responded with a 9-0 run to start the second to pull ahead, with Murphy plagued by turnovers. But the Dogs persevered, as Reid Beal drained a trey with 1:45 left in the half to give Murphy a 31-26 lead.
The third quarter was a back-and-forth affair, with both sides trading the lead on several occasions. Late in the period, Micah Nelson had a huge block inside for Murphy, which was snatched by Abling and transitioned into a go-ahead bucket. But Cherokee would keep the heat on and tie things at 49-49 by the end of the stanza.
Nelson, who made life nightmarish for the Braves all night, provided a spark in the fourth, as the Bulldogs started the quarter with an 8-0 run. The senior missed most of the season with an injury, but his return has expanded Murphy’s options, both inside and outside and finished the game with a monster double-double, amassing 21 points, 15 rebounds and four steals.
“We’re used to winning big games in football, so it’s nice to finally win a big one in basketball,” Nelson said. “I knew I needed to come back and help my teammates. It’s awesome to think, as a senior, you get to play one more time.”
Cherokee’s Sterling Santa Maria drove down the court late in the frame and launched a three that would have cut Murphy’s lead to 63-61, but the attempt fell short and the Bulldogs were able to rejoice when the final buzzer sounded.
Abling finished the game with 21 points, three rebounds, four steals and four assists. Also scoring was Tyler Simonds 10, Beal 9 and Justice Dorsey 3.
For the Braves, Santa Maria led the way with 17 points. Also scoring was Blake Smith 10, Josiah Lossiah 9, Seth Smith 5, Bobby Crowe 4, Tino Pete 3, Chris Hartbarger 2, Kyler Hill 2 and Ethan Crowe 2.
Thanks to the conference tournament triumph, Murphy has clinched a playoff berth. The No. 32-seeded Bulldogs traveled to the No. 1-seeded Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy Phoenix (21-4) for the first round after Tuesday’s press deadline.
“We got a late start, so it took us a while to get our basketball legs under us,” Laney said. “We were slightly behind, but the kids have worked hard to prep themselves for this. Right now is the best opportunity for us to peak, going into the playoffs.”
“This has been a crazy season, overall,” Abling added. “We finished the season 5-18, but we took off over the last six or seven games and ended up winning this tournament. It’s a blessed feeling. I’m thankful for each and every one of these guys.”