The Fighting Irish fall in the championship game, while the Lady Irish advance to the semifinals
By Dan McWilliams
Knoxville Catholic High School’s basketball teams again advanced far in the postseason as the Fighting Irish boys team finished as the state runner-up and the Lady Irish fell in the state semifinals.
The runner-up finish for the KCHS boys follows a state-semifinal appearance last year and a state championship in 2020. The championship-game loss also ended the career of Fighting Irish head coach Michael Hutchens, who retired after this season. The KCHS girls, making their second straight state-tournament appearance, finished runner-up last year.
Undefeated Christian Brothers ended the Fighting Irish boys team’s season in the Division II, Class AA state-championship game March 5 with a 79-72 win in the BlueCross Basketball Championships in the Hooper Eblen Center on the campus of Tennessee Tech in Cookeville. Blue Cain racked up 31 points for the Irish, University of Tennessee commitment BJ Edwards added 21 points and nine rebounds, and Deondrea Lindsey contributed 13 points with 10 rebounds. Blue, BJ, and Deondrea made the all-tournament team for KCHS.
“I just try to play my role, play whatever the game needed,” Blue said afterward. “I think today we needed a little bit of scoring, so I just tried to do that.”
For Knoxville Catholic (29-4), the loss ended a 19-game winning streak. KCHS finished the season unbeaten against Knoxville-area teams. The KCHS boys ended Brentwood Academy’s unbeaten season with a 63-55 triumph in the semifinals March 3 in Cookeville.
“I wish we could have won, but I couldn’t get upset with these guys the way they’ve played the last four years,” Coach Hutchens said after the championship game. “It’s been phenomenal. They’re a class act, all of them.”
The Lady Irish fell to eventual state champion Ensworth 65-43 in the semifinals March 3 at Tennessee Tech. Sydney Mains scored 20 and Jazmine Williams 10 for the KCHS girls.
The KCHS boys trailed at the end of each quarter against Christian Brothers (28-0). Yesan Warren hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 17-17 with 45 seconds left in the first period, but the Purple Wave answered with a trey with 2 seconds left to take a 20-17 lead into the second quarter. Knoxville Catholic, which held several leads in the first quarter, trailed throughout the second stanza. The Purple Wave stretched their lead to 32-22 with 3:31 remaining before a layup by Blue, a steal and layup by BJ, two free throws by BJ, and a free throw and 3-pointer by Blue helped cut the deficit to 36-32 at halftime.
The Fighting Irish trimmed the deficit to 40-38 and 42-40 in the third period before Christian Brothers went on a 10-0 run to make it 52-40 with 2:45 left, capped by a jumper by Mr. Basketball winner and state-tournament MVP Chandler Jackson. Three-pointers by BJ and Blue and a jumper by Yesan left KCHS down 58-48 after the quarter ended.
Knoxville Catholic made the game close down the stretch. Three free throws by BJ and a jumper and two free throws by Blue cut the deficit to 59-55 with 6:12 left. Another field goal and two free throws by Blue made it 63-59 Christian Brothers with 4:46 remaining. With 3:18 left, BJ nailed a 3 to trim the lead to 63-62, but the Purple Wave would pull away from there, leading by as many as nine points. A layup by Deondrea with 5 seconds left provided the final margin.
The Purple Wave shot 66 percent from the floor, going 31-for-47 and making numerous layups.
“It was a very tough game,” BJ said afterward. “We gave up a lot of offensive rebounds, I feel like. We gave up a lot of points as well.”
Mr. Hutchens said he was proud of the current Fighting Irish players.
“These last three years are three of the best teams in the history of Catholic,” he said. “We won the state. We’re playing in one of the toughest divisions in the state of Tennessee. This year we traveled all over the place; 14 of our first 15 games were away. They just fought every night and got themselves to this point. I guess there’s a lot of other teams that would love to be here. They’ve got nothing to be ashamed of or hold their head down about at all. I appreciate the fact they wanted to win it for me, but I wanted to win it for them.”
Against Brentwood Academy (30-1), the Fighting Irish trailed 13-10 after the first quarter and 24-23 at halftime before tying the contest 38-38 at the end of three periods. A jumper by BJ gave Knoxville Catholic the lead for good at 42-40 with 5:49 left in the game. Four free throws by Deondrea and two field goals by BJ helped make it 51-44 with 2:49 remaining. A layup by Blue, a BJ steal, and a dunk by Deondrea (assisted by Blue) put KCHS up 55-46 with 1:24 left. Six free throws by BJ and a layup by Yesan down the stretch provided the final margin.
BJ finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds, Blue with 16 points, and Presley Patterson with 11.
The Lady Irish (22-10) trailed Ensworth (25-4) only 15-13 after one quarter but were down 35-23 at halftime and 52-28 after three periods. Layups by Sydney and by Caroline Krueger and a foul shot by Caroline made it a 12-11 deficit for KCHS with 2:08 left in the first quarter. Two free throws by Sydney, who was 10-for-10 from the line for the game, left the Lady Irish down 14-13 with 1:12 remaining in the quarter. Four more foul shots by Sydney cut the Ensworth lead to 22-17 with 5:33 left in the half before the Tigers pulled away.
The Fighting Irish finished second in the statewide rankings of all boys teams by USA Today sportswriters. The KCHS boys placed first among Knoxville-area teams ranked by the Knoxville News Sentinel. BJ was a Division II-AA Mr. Basketball finalist.
The Lady Irish finished 17th in the statewide rankings of all Tennessee girls teams by USA Today sportswriters. Among Knoxville-area teams ranked by the News Sentinel, the KCHS girls finished third. Sydney was a Division II-AA Miss Basketball finalist.
For the KCHS boys, Blue said he has “learned a ton” from watching BJ playing.
“He probably doesn’t even know when I’m watching, but I’m just watching what he does, watching how he operates, how hard he works,” he said.
BJ said he was “definitely proud, very proud” of the Irish’s season.
“I just can’t thank Coach enough, my teammates enough. It was a fun ride,” he said.
Mr. Hutchens said, “These guys have done a lot.”
“It doesn’t feel good right now, but they’ll know what they’ve done in a few years when they look back. It’ll mean a lot to them,” he said.
The Fighting Irish head coach finished his 33rd season coaching at Knoxville Catholic and 40th season overall.
“I’m happy to be able to make it this long,” he said. “It’s been great fun to have a job that’s fun. I almost feel guilty, to enjoy something so much, but all good things come to an end.”
Retirement “probably won’t hit me until basketball season starts next year,” he added. “Just to get to coach these guys and be with them and see how much they’ve brought themselves up and what they’ve accomplished. That’s what the fun of coaching is.”
Luke Smith, a former player under Mr. Hutchens who just recently finished his career as a player for Belmont University, will succeed Mr. Hutchens as head coach of the Irish.
“That’s my boy,” Mr. Hutchens said. “I’ve had him in camp since he was 7 years old. That part helps me, because they’ll love him. He’ll do a great job.”