MAYNARDVILLE, Tenn. — If you want to launch a district player of the year season, opening with 33 points and 17 rebounds might be the way to do it.
That was the stat-line for Oneida senior Zak Kazee in the Indians’ season-opener at Union County on Tuesday (Nov. 14). He made a statement in the first quarter, busting out of the gate with three 3-pointers and a total of 14 points in the first eight minutes of the game to push the Indians to an early double-digit lead en route to a 61-55 victory over the Patriots.
The win got the Jacob King era off to a good start. King, who made his second coaching debut for the Indians after nine years off, saw his team start well, sputter in the middle, then pull off a come-from-behind victory against Class AA Union County.
While Kazee’s big night was mostly responsible for powering the Indians to the season-opening win, he wasn’t alone. Fellow senior Dawson Branstetter poured in 17 points — which was more than any player from Union County.
The Indians led 20-9 after the first quarter, and led 31-19 at halftime. Branstetter knocked down a pair of 3-point shots in the second quarter, and it appeared that Oneida was well on its way to a win against a Patriots team that could not find a way to put the ball in the bucket.
But Union County found some momentum in the third quarter, out-scoring Oneida 19-11 to cut the deficit to 42-38 as the final period began.
The Patriots then took the lead in the final quarter, before Kazee again heated up. The senior had 10 points in the fourth, including a six-of-six effort from the free throw line down the stretch, as Oneida battled back from a four-point deficit to pull off the six-point win.
Oneida shot free throws well enough as a team, going 17 of 26 (65 percent) from the free throw line. Kazee and Branstetter were a combined 17 of 25 from the line.
Union County shot free throws even better, going 14 of 21 from the line (67 percent). But the Patriots missed three crucial attempts in the fourth quarter, as Oneida made its late run.
The win was a statement of sorts for an Oneida program that few are mentioning as a candidate to advance beyond district play this season, let alone challenge for a district championship. While King stopped short of predicting a district title for his inaugural team during preseason interview sessions, he did say that he thinks his 2017-2018 Indians can “surprise some people.”
ONEIDA (61): Kazee 33, Branstetter 17, Burchfield 5, West 2, Bowling 2, Stephens 2.
UNION COUNTY (55): Nease 16, Cooper 12, Keck 11, Oaks 10, Headrick 4, Epperson 2.
Pigeon Forge 67, Oneida 63: For a second consecutive game, Oneida built an early double-digit lead, watched its opponent battle back, then was faced with a come-from-behind rally at the end. But, the second time, it came up short, as the Indians fell to Pigeon Forge, 67-63, at OHS Gymnasium in Thursday’s home opener.
The Indians, who had defeated Union County 48 hours earlier, again started well against Pigeon Forge, jumping to a 10-point lead late in the first half and leading 34-27 at halftime.
But the Tigers battled back, tying the game in the third quarter before taking the lead for good early in the fourth, on a night that featured seven ties and 12 lead changes between the two teams.
Cameron Smith — a transfer student who joined the Tigers during the offseason — single-handedly willed his team to victory, scoring 29 points and five 3-point shots.
Smith fouled out of the game on a technical foul in the fourth quarter, which gave the Indians a chance to seize momentum. Trailing 63-60 with just under a minute to play, Oneida had committed a foul to stop the clock when Smith was whistled for a technical. That gave Oneida a pair of free throws and possession of the basketball. The Indians made one of the two free throws, but could not take advantage with the offensive possession.
Free throw shooting was Oneida’s Achilles heel. The Indians converted on just 46 percent of their opportunities at the line, hitting 12 of 26 attempts.
PIGEON FORGE (67): Smith 29, Wilkinson 13, Rockett 7, Rees 7, Wender 3, Staininger 2, Longboy 2, Williford 2, Vaighan 1, Sawyer 1.
ONEIDA (63): Kazee 20, Yancey 17, Branstetter 8, Stephens 8, Botts 4, E. West 3, D. West 2, Carroll 1.