Matthew Sells plays the game the right way

Mac McLeod/OCN photo

Matthew Sells gets a hug from his mother upon commemoration of his surpassing 2,000 points.

Just Thinking by Mac McLeod

About a year ago, I was going through some filing cabinets in my office and came across a story I had written back in March of 2008. It was about Chase Dunn and the finals of the regional tournament that year. I read it, wrote on the top margin “good story” and filed it back.

At about 3:30 a.m. last Sunday morning, I woke up with that story on my mind for about an hour and I just go back to sleep thinking about it and just how similar it was the region 4 first round game that had just ended about 6 hours ago.

After tossing and turning for about an hour, I got up, put on some clothes, and headed to my computer. That story was a good one back then and I felt like it should be retold with this year’s game. The circumstances were similar, only the names had changed, and even at that point, they ran together – Chase Dunn and Matthew Sells, two of the best to ever play at Livingston Academy.

Back in 2008, the Wildcats were coached by now Livingston Academy principal Richard Melton, who at the time also held the school’s scoring record for boys at 2,250 points. Players on that talented squad included Jake Huitt, Kendall Melton, Clint West, Justin Poston, Adam Wilson, Todd Smith, T.J. Smith, Dunn, Jeremy McLearan, Kailen Melton, Hayden Hill, Will Peterman, and Deven Ramsey.

That was a fine team, winning 24 of 28 games in the regular season then taking the district tournament title with a 51-48 win over Upperman. In the first round of the regional tournament, the Wildcats ripped Goodpasture 62-43, then faced Station Camp and one of Tennessee’s finest basketball players in years, John Jenkins.

It was in the last 4 seconds of the game, the semi-finals to be exact, that Dunn was fouled and went to the free throw line to take his shots. With Dunn standing there waiting for the official to hand him the ball, Jenkins walked by. The two had become friends through AAU ball, so it wasn’t out of place for them to exchange a few nice words or two.

Livingston was leading 75-73 and Station Camp needed Dunn to miss the shots and get the rebound in hopes of tying the game and sending it to overtime.

At 6-8, Jenkins towered over Dunn at 5-8, put his arm over Dunn’s shoulder and asked, “Do you think you can make both of these shots?” to which Dunn replied, “I’m sure I can.”

He did, added a field goal seconds later to ice the win, and also set the single game scoring mark of 49 points.

Livingston went on to win the game, beat White House for the regional championship, then beat McMinn in the sub-state. The run came to an end in the first round of the state tournament in Murfreesboro when Fulton slammed them 92-55. The Cats were 30-5 for the season.

Sunday morning, even before “early” I woke with that story on my mind and just how it related to the previous Saturday night’s first round game of the regional tournament at Crossville.

Regional tournament games are big, especially the first one where the winner continues on and the loser packs its tennis shoes and goes home.

This time around, it was still big, but there were a couple other things of interest to be played out.

First was, could Matthew Sells break the school’s all-time scoring record set by Sunday Watson? He needed 31 points to do it, and most figured it would take two games to get there since at this point of the season, there are no “bad” teams left and if he could get 15 or 20 Saturday, he would need only a few more in a second game.

Problem here was, what if Livingston loses and Sells didn’t get a second chance. With all those easy assists he had made over his outstanding career, there were a few that he could have easily made himself. But that’s not how Matthew played the game. He played to win, regardless of who scored the points, and said several times that he would just as soon make good assist as he would score the points.

It didn’t take long to see that if things continued the way they had gone in the first two quarters, the mark would fall sometime in the third frame. After two quarters, Sells had 22 points and only 9 to tie and 10 to break the record.

“I had asked several people last week how many I needed,” Sells would confess later, “but to tell you the truth, I don’t remember when I broke it at all. After the game, I knew I had and then I learned I had broken the single game scoring mark. That’s’ kinda cool.”

When he passed Dunn as the leading boy’s scorer at 2,508, Sells did it from the free throw line in Jamestown battling York Institute. It was in the third period, at the free throw line. He hit the first to tie and the second to break.

Saturday night, it was a similar situation. It was in the third period, on the road, this time Cumberland County. With 57 seconds remaining in the quarter, Sells made the first of two to tie Watson’s 2,608 total then hit the second to break the mark.

To move past Dunn, he did it in a second overtime, hitting two free throws to tie and two more, with 1:08 remaining in the game to set the mark at 51.

Having covered Sells since he was in grade school, it’s easy to see why he was not all that impressed with himself when he set the new records. Matthew grew up in a basketball family and probably started dribbling a ball shortly after being potty trained. Both his mother Tonya and daddy Billy were fine players in their own right and passed the game on to their first child, Mackenzie, who would earn the title of “Miss Basketball” in Tennessee her senior year. A second sister, Marlee, joined Mackenzie on the 1,000-plus list on the wall of the LA gym, so it was little wonder Matthew would follow in their steps.

In his freshman season, Livingston returned to Murfreesboro and went to the second round before losing. In the press room after the game, as he has always done, Matthew sat quietly listening to questions. Finally a reporter asked how impressed he was to be playing in the state finals as a freshman to which the he replied, “This isn’t my first trip here,” referring to watching his sister play there before him.

Matthew will graduate this spring and move on to Lincoln Memorial to play his college ball, and without a doubt, we will all miss him when he’s no longer around to rally his teammates to another Wildcat win, but I surely thank him for all those tremendous moments so calmly achieved. He was almost the perfect player. He had the size at his position, he had the proper training, mainly from his dad who coached at Rickman Elementary School, but his biggest asset was the fact he “wanted to do it” and worked hours and hours to make it happen.

“I just always wanted to play the game the way it was designed to be played. It’s a game of skill and speed, and when you work hard at it, you learn to appreciate it and try to do it the right way. It’s not all scoring, it’s rebounding and finding the open man and getting the ball to him, boxing out and stealing the ball from other players. It’ a great game if you want to do it right.”

Well, Matthew, you did it right and those of us who watch you play appreciate how you got it done. We’ve been blessed here at Livingston Academy over the years with the efforts of some outstanding young men and women who entertained us mostly on Tuesday and Friday nights during those long winter nights.

Now here’s to you – the best life can offer, and we know you’ll work hard to get it done right.