Knoxville Catholic finishes 31-2 after posting a 28-game winning streak and going wire to wire ranked No. 1
By Dan McWilliams
The Knoxville Catholic High School boys basketball team’s dream of its first-ever state championship ended in the title game, but the Fighting Irish finished as one of the greatest teams in school history and earned a milestone victory for their head coach along the way.
Nashville Maplewood defeated the Irish 60-57 in the Class AA finals March 18 at the BlueCross Basketball Championships at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro. The loss ended a 28-game winning streak for KCHS, which finished 31-2 and made its 10th state-tourney appearance. The Irish were ranked No. 1 in every Associated Press state poll that came out during the season.
“I’m very proud of these guys,” said head coach Mike Hutchens. “It’s been a great season, to have the consistency to go poll to poll ranked No. 1 and to win as many games in a row as we had. It’s a tough ending. It doesn’t feel good right now, but they’re going to look back on it—it was a historical season, one of the greatest in school history.”
Knoxville Catholic captured District 4-AA and Region 2-AA tournament crowns on its way to the state tournament. A 70-54 win over Christian Academy of Knoxville on Feb. 21 gave the Irish their first district title since the 2005-06 season. It also earned Mr. Hutchens his 499th win during his 28-year run as KCHS head coach.
On Feb. 25, Knoxville Catholic defeated Union County 86-51 in the Region 2-AA tourney quarterfinals at KCHS to give Mr. Hutchens his 500th victory. Big man Brock Jancek poured in 25 points and collected seven rebounds for the Irish, while point guard Luke Smith added 20 points and Davari Reeder 15.
KCHS went on to defeat Alcoa 80-56 and CAK 59-31 in the semifinals and finals at Austin-East High School to earn the region title. Host Knoxville Catholic then topped Grainger 73-49 in the sectional round to qualify for the state tournament.
The Irish rolled over Macon County 78-46 in the first round of the state tourney. Jancek recorded 19 points and nine rebounds, while Chase Kuerschen scored 15, Smith 13, and Jack Sompayrac 11. KCHS led 51-36 after three quarters before racking up 27 points in the fourth.
Smith gave the Irish an unforgettable finish in the semifinals by knocking home a long 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift KCHS to a 56-53 win over Whites Creek. Smith finished the game with 20 points, including an 8-for-8 showing at the foul line, while Jancek added 16 and Kuerschen 13.
In the championship game, Knoxville Catholic held only one brief lead, 22-21 in the second quarter, but hung close to Maplewood throughout.
The Irish trailed 37-30 in the third period but rallied to tie the game at 39 on a layup by Tony Scott.
Maplewood then took the lead for good on two free throws by Hassan Littlepage and was up 41-39 at the end of the quarter.
Layups by Smith made it 45-44 and 47-46 midway through the final frame, but Maplewood took a 58-50 lead on two free throws by Class AA Mr. Basketball recipient Bo Hodges with 36 seconds left. KCHS rallied to make it 60-57 on a 3-pointer by Kuerschen with five seconds left. After a missed free throw by Maplewood, Jancek rebounded and Smith — a Mr. Basketball finalist himself — fired a half-court shot to try and tie the game, but it fell short. Jancek led the Irish with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Reeder scored 11 and Smith 10.
Hodges, named tournament MVP, scored 18 to lead Maplewood. Jancek, Smith, and Kuerschen made the all-state tournament team for the Irish.
Head coach Hutchens was proud of his team after the game.
“These guys come out every night and play so hard on defense, and that’s hard a lot of times to get high school kids to do, and they do it every night,” he said. “The fact that we’ve been so consistent — we’ve had some good breaks, too. Other than Davari Reeder, who missed two-thirds of the season with a broken foot, that was the only serious injury that we had, and we’ve had some bad luck with injuries the last couple of years. Having effort every night in every game—it’s tough to be consistent. I felt that was big for us, being healthy and being consistent every night defensively.”
Smith, Kuerschen, Reeder, Scott, and Dawson Anderson led a strong KCHS senior class that will be missed next year.
“I started most of them since they were freshmen,” Mr. Hutchens said.
“That first year, we started a lot of freshmen—it was a struggle a little bit at first, but since then we’ve gone 20-9, 22-5, 31-2. They’ve gotten better every year. This year we got some breaks. I’m going to brag—I think it’s one of the greatest teams in school history.”
Team chemistry was “our strength,” the head coach said.
“They’re the most unselfish team I’ve coached in 35 years,” he said. “They’ve played with each other since they were 8-9 years old. They’ve played AAU together. They’re like family. That’s what makes them what they are—they’re unselfish, team-first. I know that’s a cliché, but with this bunch it is. They’re out to win, and they’re unselfish.”
Foul trouble hampered KCHS in the championship game as Smith had three in the first half and Jancek two.
“It was tough when we had to start the second half without Luke, and at one point we had Brock and Luke both out. That’s two of our three leading scorers, and I thought it was a great effort to hang in and take a shot at the end to put it into overtime,” Mr. Hutchens said. “Like always, they’re going to be there at the end.
“[Foul trouble] is going to affect you offensively. We came out defensively—we gave up 25 points at halftime, so the defensive effort was there. It was just one of those nights—shots didn’t fall. It’s disappointing, but that’s the way things go. That’s life, but we gave all we had. It didn’t fall our way tonight.
But we were on the dance floor and had a chance. That’s all you can ask.”
Smith said the team learned it was one of the greatest in school history as the season progressed.
“We heard it about halfway through the season,” he said following the championship loss. “But that’s subjective, and championships are objective, and we did not get that today.”
Smith said he never really found his jump shot during the tournament finals and that picking up a charging foul early in the championship game proved costly.
“I like to get to the rack before I shoot a few threes,” he said. “I never found my jump shot in this tournament. I kept shooting, and I tried to shoot out of it, but it never really fell. I got to the hole a little in the second half, but my jump shot never started going in.”
Jancek, a junior, said that reaching the state championship game is plenty of motivation to get back to Murfreesboro in 2018. “It’s a lot of motivation to work hard in the offseason for next year.”
KCHS finished with its third state runner-up honor in school history, joining the 1973-74 and 1975-76 teams.
“We are extremely proud of this basketball team and Coach Hutchens,” said KCHS president Dickie Sompayrac. “To play the schedule that they played and to go 31-2 was extraordinary. This was a fun team to watch, and they will go down as arguably the best basketball team in Catholic High’s history.”
Next year the Irish move up to the Class AAA level, with Farragut, Bearden, and Maryville among their opponents in a nine-team District 4-AAA.