In front of their largest non-tournament crowd, the Henry County Wildcats clawed their way out of a huge first-quarter hole to eke out a win over the Eminence Warriors
It was a role-reversal from the teams’ previous meeting at Eminence, when the Warriors climbed out of their own first-quarter deficit to take the win on a last-second shot.
This time, after falling behind 22-8 in the first quarter, the Wildcats fought their way back, and took a 5-point win on Jan. 8.
The game opened with a raucous but fairly sportsmanlike crowd cheering wildly for their teams, but the Wildcats’ crowd was silenced as the Warriors quickly jumped out to a 14-4 lead.
The Warriors’ Jalen Dixie grabbed the tip to start the game and launched a 3-pointer just seconds into the game to give the Warriors the lead. The Warriors hit two more 3-pointers in their opening run
Meanwhile the Wildcats struggled offensively as they tried to pound the ball inside but turned it over repeatedly. After Derek Jeffries got his second inside basket to cut the score to 14-6 the Warriors reeled off eight unanswered points to go up 22-6 and it looked like the rout was on as the Warriors hit two more 3-pointers.
“Several of their threes, I felt like we didn’t cover, but a couple were with people in their faces,” Wildcats’ coach Enoch Welch said. “They were unconscious. I felt like we had to weather the storm, but it was a heck of a storm.”
Robbie Cruse had a late put-back to cut the deficit to 22-8 heading into the second period.
The pace slowed in the second period as Henry County worked for inside shots and the Warriors struggled to find the mark on their end. Neither team could find the range from outside as the quarter ground to a close with Henry County cutting one point off the Warriors lead.
“Going into the second quarter we talked about sticking with what we do,” Welch said. “The only concern was if we didn’t get some stops the margin would be too great to overcome. We got some key stops.”
The Wildcats reduced the lead to nine points midway through the quarter at 22-13 but Mitchell Golden came off the bench to get two important inside baskets to help the Warriors maintain their lead.
“We got some big minutes from Mitchell Golden in the second quarter,” Warriors’ coach Chris Nethery said.
The Warriors went into the locker room leading 30-17 after James Wundrak’s put-back helped the Cats reduce the margin and win the period 9-8.
Coming out of the locker room, the Cats had a determined look about them and it showed early in the 3rd period as the Cats crashed the offensive boards on their first three possessions and came up with four points on a Jeffries’ inside move and a free throw apiece from Landon New and Dakota Estes.
That cut the lead to 30-21 and set the stage for what seemed to be the momentum turning play of the game as Chase Howard stole a pass out front and streaked down court for a two-handed dunk, sending the fans into a frenzy.
“Chase did a good defensive job getting into passing lanes and disrupting their offense,” Welch said.
But the Warriors quickly moved the ball down court and Trent Overall buried a wide-open 3-pointer just seconds after the dunk to get the Warrior fans back on their feet. The shot gave the Warriors a double-digit lead and should have killed the Cats’ momentum.
But a determined Wildcat squad continued to chip away at the lead. By the end of the period the Cats whittled the lead to just four points at 34-30. They had outscored the Warriors 11-4 in the period.
As the fourth period opened the Cats continued to pound it inside.
First Austin Young hit from inside the paint and then Estes streaked down the lane for an inside basket to tie the score at 34 with 7 minutes left in the game.
Young then scored inside to give the Cats their first lead of the game and complete the period-opening 6-0 run.
Daishon Moore worked his way open in the paint for the Warriors to tie the game before Demarcus Bailey restored the Warriors lead by hitting the first of two free throws. His second attempt missed but Moore grabbed the rebound and scored inside, stretching the lead back to 3 points.
The play could have been another momentum turner but the Cats continued to grind it inside, and after the teams traded baskets to make it 41-38 in favor of the Warriors, the Cats went on an 8-0 run.
The run started with a Jeffries’ bucket inside and then, in what turned out to be the final momentum swing, Estes stole the inbounds pass and scored to put the Cats up 44-41. Young hit two free throws and Jeffries scored inside to complete the run.
EHS called timeout at that point and Dixie hit a runner in the lane coming out of the timeout to cut the lead to 46-43.
Henry’ s next possession netted them nothing and Eminence came down with a chance to tie or cut the lead to one point. But the Warriors failed to score and Henry County got possession back with 2 minutes left. The Cats proceeded to run the clock down to 1:08 before calling timeout. After the Cats ran 10 more seconds off the clock out of the timeout, Eminence stole the ball and hurried down court looking for another big basket. The Warriors got off two 3-pointers but missed both before the ball bounced out of bounds off the second attempt.
From there, the Cats hit 4-of-6 free throws down the stretch sandwiched around an Overall layup, coming away with the 50-45 victory.
Welch felt that in the long run the Wildcat inside game proved to be the difference. “Our big men running the high-low game were phenomenal,” he said. “Austin and Derek did a good job with it. Derek had 12 points and 11 rebounds. We need that from him every game.”
Both coaches agreed that it was a hard fought, aggressive game. “We settled in and didn’t quit, and most importantly, we kept our discipline which we have been preaching since Christmas,” Welch said. “I thought it was a good hard-fought game by two good teams.”
“It was a good hard-fought game but clean,” Nethery said. “The atmosphere was great from both sets of fans.”
After the game the teams put aside their on-court rivalry for a prayer circle led by Wildcat Derek Jeffries.
The Cats improved to 2-5 in district play while Eminence fell to 2-3 against district rivals.