In the first boys' basketball county showdown of the season Saturday night, the Henry County Wildcats picked a good time to catch fire against the host Eminence Warriors.
Henry's shooting display started shortly after the cross-town rivals came out of the locker room following the halftime break, and by the time the fireworks came to a halt eight minutes later, the Wildcats had used a 24-5 spurt to stretch their lead to 55-27. The Cats then cruised in for the 70-49 win.
It took Henry a little while to get rolling at Warrior Gymnasium, but once the Wildcats did, it was all over as Joey Pollard was 5-of-6 from three-point land, Ben Roberts was 4-of-6 and the Cats were 11-of-16.
"If you play as hard as Henry and shoot that well, you can beat a lot of people," Eminence coach Keith Blackburn said after the game. "And we just happened to be the team on the other side of the bench that night. They found a zone, and when shooters find that zone, it's hard to get them out of it. We knew going into the game they could get hot, and they did at the right time."
"I thought Pollard and Roberts played really well," Henry coach Jason Holland said of his starting senior guards. "That's what you expect them to do in a big rivalry game. I thought it was a good team effort for us - we played eight to 10 guys and pressed most of the game."
Henry (6-16 overall, 3-12 in 8th Region) jumped out to a 6-0 early lead over Eminence (2-18, 0-7) following two inside baskets from Cody Hinkle and a Pollard putback. The Warriors called a timeout to slow down the fast-charging Wildcats, and after the short pause in action, Nelson Hedges put Eminence on the scoreboard for the first time with a 10-foot jumper.
By the time the first quarter came to an end, Henry was in front 20-7. The only other points Eminence managed to score was from another jumper from Hedges, a layup from Ed Berry and a free throw from Ryan Paris.
To start the second quarter, Pollard and Berry went back-and-forth with Pollard knocking down two three-point baskets and Berry swishing a three-pointer and scoring on a driving layup. Thanks to Berry and Hedges, the Warriors cut their deficit to single digits, 31-22, at the half.
But the Wildcats, who never trailed and got up by as many as 38 points, used a dominating third-quarter performance to put away the Warriors. It was all Henry during the eight-minute stretch as Roberts drained three three-pointers, and teammates Pollard and Steven Tillett drained one apiece.
"I was unhappy with our letdown in the second quarter so we changed some things up after halftime," Holland explained. "We let Eminence score some easy baskets off our press so we decided to switch to a different press where we put more pressure on the ball. And since we were making our shots, it allowed us to set up our press more."
With 1:05 left in the third, the Wildcats' suffocating defense and accurate shooting allowed them to push their lead to 20-plus points, 48-27, for the first time. And the Cats eventually stretched it to 30-plus points, 58-27, just 10 seconds into the fourth quarter, following Pollard's final three-pointer.
Eminence freshman Dre Banta gave Eminence a lift down the stretch with three three-point baskets, but it wasn't enough to seriously challenge Henry as the Wildcats came away with the 21-point victory.
"I think our guys showed a lot of heart to be down 20-7 to our cross-town rivals at the end of the first (quarter) and continue to fight, fight, fight," Blackburn said. "I thought all of the guys on the court played hard, but Henry made the plays when they needed to and capitalized on our mistakes. They definitely came with their "A" game."
It didn't help the shorthanded Warriors that they were playing less than 100 percent from the get-go. Hedges had a stomach bug the day before and was questionable if he was ready to go; starting point guard Shaun Hamlin took a spill in Thursday's game against Trimble County and was also questionable; starting forward Dustin Amarello wasn't able to play due to an illness; and backup power forward Justin Webb also had to sit with an injured foot.
"We had some unfortunate situations, but we battled through them like we have been all year," Blackburn said. "I have to compliment our players for doing the things they do with all the distractions and adversity they face, and they just keep plugging away."
The Wildcats won on the scoreboard and the stat sheet. To go along with their deadly long-range shooting, they out rebounded the Warriors 32-22, outscored them in the paint 28-22, and had just eight turnovers, compared to Eminence's 21. Both teams shot around 50 percent from the floor, but Henry put up a lot more shots and knocked down six more three-pointers.
Henry had three players reach double digits in scoring with Pollard (17 points), Roberts (14) and Hinkle (12), while Pete Baldwin scored seven points, Cari Dunaway and Tillett scored five each, Brad Taylor and Matt Long scored four each, and Dillon Smith added two. For Eminence, Hedges scored 14 points, Berry scored 12, Banta scored 11, Paris scored five, Hamlin, Ethan Keiser and Trevor Davis scored two each and TJ Cooper added one.
Following Henry's disappointing loss to Williamstown Thursday afternoon, Holland put his team through the hardest practice all season the night before the Eminence showdown, he said. But the added stress did little on the Cats' legs as they came out strong and, except for one stretch in the second quarter, looked fresh all four quarters.
"I told the guys they might not like me much, but we weren't going to worry about winning or losing, just getting better," Holland said. "We really turned up the intensity in practice. They were all worried about practicing that hard between two games, but I told them they would be fine, and they were. I think our kids responded well."
Henry and Eminence will meet again, this time on Henry's home court, Feb. 15. Game time is set to start at 7:30 p.m., following the girls' varsity game at 6.
In a rivalry that has had thrilling endings and usually decided in the final stretch, Blackburn hopes the game will be much closer next time.
"We'll play them again in two weeks and see what happens," he said.
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