The Fighting Irish defeat Briarcrest 50-47 in the finals and set off a celebration 80-plus years in the making
By Dan McWilliams
This one was for Luke Smith. And for Matt Brown. And for Chris Gettelfinger. And for Matt Parton.
And for every player who has ever donned the green and gold of the Knoxville Catholic High School basketball team.
The Fighting Irish captured their first-ever state championship March 7 as they defeated Briarcrest Christian School 50-47 in the Division IIAA finals at Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena in Nashville.
The title came in Knoxville Catholic’s ninth appearance in the state tournament, where the team had finished runner-up in 1974 with Matt Brown, 1976 with Chris Gettelfinger, and 2017 with Luke Smith.
Interviewed the following week, 31-year KCHS head coach Mike Hutchens said the 2020 championship was “unbelievable.”
“It still has not set in,” he said. “We kind of said after the game the other night that this is for all the teams that have been at Catholic. We won it for our high school. It’s an unbelievable feeling.
“I had to look two or three times at the scoreboard to make sure that it was really over. The coaching staff kind of grabbed me—it dawned on me then the game was over. It took me a second to realize it.”
Sophomore B.J. Edwards scored 14 points with eight rebounds and four assists for KCHS (25-4) and was named tournament Most Valuable Player. The title game was a faceoff between Briarcrest’s Mr. Basketball winner Kennedy Chandler, who scored 13 points and recorded five assists against KCHS, and B.J., a Mr. Basketball finalist.
Sophomore Pressley Patterson led the Irish in scoring with 15 points, draining four of his five 3-pointers in the third quarter. Senior Akeem Odusipe added nine points and raked down 13 rebounds for Knoxville Catholic, which outrebounded the Saints 36-19. Freshman Blue Cain scored four points, made two assists, and grabbed six rebounds for the winners. Pressley, Akeem, and Blue joined B.J. on the all-tournament team.
Also scoring for KCHS were junior Samuel Sompayrac with six points and Handje Tamba, a 7-foot sophomore, with two.
“I don’t have any words to explain it. It’s just amazing to be the first at school to win this title,” Handje said. “I’m just happy right now—I don’t have any words. We worked hard for it, so we deserve it.”
Rodney Newsom added 12 points for Briarcrest (25-6).
Shaky free-throw shooting down the stretch made the finish a close one for Knoxville Catholic, but single foul shots by Akeem, Samuel, and B.J. in the last seven seconds provided the final margin.
“We work on free throws every practice,” B.J. said. “We kept missing, but we got the rebounds, so it’s great.”
Rebounding by Samuel helped preserve the win. “It’s a great feeling. Everybody, not just on our basketball team, but the community has really wanted it to happen for 80 years, so it was really great to just finally do it,” Blue said. “We just kept fighting. Sam got a lot of crucial rebounds, and that really helped us keep the lead and keep the momentum. Sam, he really kept us in the game, and even if we missed free throws, he was there to get the rebound, so that really helped.”
The championship came in KCHS’s first year in Division II.
“It was just amazing,” B.J. said. “We knew, moving into this division, that Briarcrest was like the top dog. We scheduled games like going to [the] Gonzaga [D.C. Classic] and playing IMG for us to be ready for this game, and it paid off.”
A small but loud contingent of KCHS fans was delighted by the final outcome.
“We had our regulars there,” Mr. Hutchens said. The first of B.J.’s two 3-pointers gave Knoxville Catholic a 10-7 lead with 3:34 left in the first quarter, but the Saints outscored the Irish 7-0 down the stretch to take a 14-10 lead at the first break.
A three-point play by B.J. and a 3-pointer by Pressley following a Handje blocked shot gave KCHS a 19-14 lead with 6:35 left in the half. A jumper by B.J., a layup by Akeem, and two free throws by Blue made it 25-17 with 3:09 to go in the second period. The Saints then went on a 9-0 run to take a 26-25 lead at halftime.
Pressley’s 3-point barrage in the third quarter helped KCHS build a 39-34 lead, but its West Tennessee opponent cut into that margin and made it a 39-37 game going into the fourth period.
A jumper by Samuel off an assist from Blue gave Knoxville Catholic the lead for good at 44-43 with 4:02 left in the game. A B.J. 3-pointer stretched the lead to 47-43 with 2:34 to go. Neither team scored until Kennedy made two foul shots for Briarcrest with eight seconds left. Kennedy would make a layup with five seconds remaining, but the Saints could not offset the Irish’s final three free throws.
“I was pretty nervous, because I know the game was on the line and I had to hit the free throws,” Akeem said.
To reach the state tournament, KCHS needed to win a quarterfinal game at home, which it did over Ensworth 66-58 on Feb. 29.
In the semifinals of the state tourney at Lipscomb, Knoxville Catholic bested Christian Brothers
75-60. B.J. racked up 22 points and nine rebounds in that game, while Blue made seven of eight field goals and scored 17. Akeem recorded 12 points, nine rebounds, and a team-high five assists, and Samuel tallied 10 points.
For Akeem, the journey to KCHS and a state title has been a long one that began in his native Nigeria.
“It’s amazing. Plus, it’s been my dream to win the state title,” he said. “To finally have it, it’s just amazing. I don’t even know how to express it.
“It means everything, like Coach being a coach for 30 years had never won it. Winning it for the school and for him, and also being my dream to win it, it means everything.”
Growing up in Africa, Akeem said, “Everyone knows soccer. I played soccer all my life, then I started growing. Just seeing people tall playing basketball, I thought it was easy until I tried it. It was not easy. I had to work on it. I had the opportunity to have a chance to come here and show my talent, and my parents were good with it.”
There still remained the question after he arrived at KCHS of whether the team could reach the state finals.
“I knew I could. I knew I had the ability to, but I didn’t know if I had the team to get to this point, but playing with these guys, the way we play and practice, I knew we could do it,” Akeem said.
The state-title team had good chemistry together.
“We played pretty good defense. We passed the ball. No one was selfish,” Akeem said. “Going to the basket harder than last year, because we knew this division was harder than the one we played in.”
The Irish set goals in the offseason, Akeem said.
“We know what we put in we get out. We can outrun and outplay our opponent, so every time we come in we always come in with the mindset that we’re going to outplay you guys and you guys can’t stop us,” he said.
What’s next for KCHS hoops?
“We want to try to get back to the state tournament again next year,” Mr. Hutchens said. “We’ve got everybody back but Akeem. Of course, Akeem’s a big loss: 17 points and 13 rebounds. You’re not going to replace what Akeem does, but we’ve got a lot of good kids back. We’re going to be pushing again next year.”
But they’ll never forget this year.
“This will be one of the greatest memories of all our lifetimes, as far as athletics,” Mr. Hutchens said.
“We have several kids who are going to play at the next level. But no matter where they go or what they do, we’ll always be together. It’s going to mean a lot.”