That’s how long it had been since the Piedmont Bulldog basketball team took the court in a meaningful game.
It’s also how long Piedmont basketball coach Tommy Lewis carried that 499-win monkey on his back.
That monkey was finally lifted Monday night, after his Bulldogs squeaked out a 58-56 victory at Cherokee County High School – a place where Lewis had tremendous success from 2001-06 (three area championships, two Northeast Regional appearances and a berth in the Class 3A state semifinals his final year with the Warriors).
Lewis is now in his 26th year coaching basketball, which also includes stops at Gaylesville and his alma mater, Spring Garden. In that time, he’s guided his teams to 18 area championships, 17 20-win seasons and 11 Northeast Regional appearances.
“It looks kind of selfish when you start counting your numbers, but I’m very proud of it,” Lewis said. “It’s reflective of all these teams I’ve had, which I’m real proud of, but at the same time you don’t want to say ‘I’m aiming for 500.’ I think that’s how you become miserable. I was hoping we’d win one this year, and whenever it comes, it comes.”
Current Cherokee County basketball coach Travis Barnes presented the Bulldogs with a game ball following the contest.
“Everywhere he goes, he’s successful,” Barnes said. “It’s kind of fitting he could come here and win this one. I don’t want to lose, but I’m happy for him. That’s just a testament to how good a job he does. Who knows how many he can get? He’s a very good coach.”
Lewis is 500-257 for his career, but the two numbers he’s currently proud of are 1-0.
“When we came in tonight, we knew we had a bunch of people who could play very much the same. We just weren’t sure how that was going to be,” Lewis said. “It turned out they played fairly well. I was pretty pleased with the effort from everyone. I don’t think we put anybody in there who had a bad game. There’s 10 or 12 of them who really love to play, and it showed tonight.”
Junior point guard Denard Spears was the catalyst in Lewis’s latest victory. Spears tallied 16 points, seven assists, five rebounds and three steals against the Warriors (1-4).
“What Piedmont does a good job of is they isolate him (Spears) at the top and they let him drive,” Barnes said. “You’ve got to commit two if not three guys to him, then they can kick it out and shoot it. That’s where they were successful tonight. We had to come help off on him, and he did a good job of finding the open man.”
Despite Spears’ all-around effort, Cherokee County almost rallied from an 11-point third-quarter deficit behind its junior tandem of guard Darius Covington and forward Tony Pruitt.
Covington led all scorers with 23 points (14 coming in the first half) and eight rebounds. Pruitt posted 15 points, 10 boards, five steals and three assists.
Barnes and Lewis both agreed Covington was huge underneath the boards on Monday.
“He’s one of the smaller guys on the court, but he goes extremely hard on the offensive boards,” Barnes said. “He had seven offensive rebounds tonight. He kind of put us on his back tonight. I made the comment to our coaches that if he didn’t play the way he did tonight, we’d have been in trouble.
“Every time we shot the ball, he was crashing the boards. There’s a lot more he got his hands on that he just didn’t come down with. That effort he had on the offensive end really carried us.”
Besides defending against Covington, a worrisome stat for Lewis was the Bulldogs’ free-throw shooting. Piedmont was 11 of 23 from the line for the game.
“The thing we don’t have right now is the free throws,” Lewis said. “We’re not a great free-throw shooting group.”
The Bulldogs missed eight of their shots from the charity stripe in the final quarter, which allowed the Warriors to creep within a point off a rebound and putback by Covington with 33 seconds left in the game.
Bulldogs freshman guard Darnell Jackson scored the game’s final point with four seconds to go on the back end of two shots from the line. Jackson finished with 13 points.
The Warriors had one last chance with 3.1 seconds remaining, but Covington mishandled an in-bound pass from Wade Griffith and turned the ball back over to the Bulldogs. Tyler Lusk was fouled with 0.4 seconds to go, but missed both shots from the line.
Lusk finished with four points and six boards. Cass McCord came away with six points and three assists. Jaylan Johnson also netted six points and Dreek Thompson contributed five points and four boards.
JoJo Diamond added 11 points for the Warriors. Josh Higgins finished with five points.