The Eminence Warriors used tough inside defense and aggressive offense to hold on for a 59-57 victory over the Henry County Wildcats in the first round of the 31st district tournament Monday night.
Henry County — who found themselves down 12 points with 50.9 seconds left — put on a furious rally that came up short as Landon New raced down court with 4 seconds to go and missed a desperation runner under pressure.
The Warriors hit their free throws well for most of the game but missed several down the stretch. Henry County took advantage on the other end by hitting three 3-pointers in their final13-3 run.
The teams opened by trading baskets in the early going for a 4-4 tie. Eminence went on a 9-4 run to take a 13-8 lead late in the period.
Henry County scored the final 5 points of the period on a Dakota Estes 3-pointer and a steal and layup by Chase Howard to tie the game going into the second period.
Eminence’s Jalen Dixie dominated the scoring for the Warriors in the opening period, scoring 9 of their 13 points.
The game followed a similar pattern in the second period as the teams traded buckets early before Eminence went on a 7-0 run to open a 23-16 lead.
The Warriors scored their points mainly from the inside during the run, with Cornelius Sanford getting two inside buckets and Brandon Mitchell getting a put back.
The Cats came back to score 8 of the final 10 points of the half to cut the lead to one at 25-24 going into the locker room as Estes hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
The game was tight in the third period — the Warriors could never increase their lead to more than 3 points. With the score standing at 31-28, Henry County went on an 8-2 run to close the period.
The period closed with Henry County holding for a final shot, which they missed.
The Warriors rebounded the ball and attempted to hurl a long pass down court for a final shot of their own, but James Wundrak blocked the pass and the ball fell into the hands of Brad West under the basket for an easy two points at the buzzer which, fired up the Wildcats and their fans.
Henry County opened the scoring in the fourth period on a layup by Estes to go up by 5 points–their biggest lead of the game.
After a long scoreless streak for both teams Eminence called timeout at 5:58 and came out of it with 7 straight points to go up 40-38.
The big shot in the run came on a deep Overall 3-pointer to tie the game with 5 minutes to go.
Austin Young hit two free throws at 3:53 to tie the game at 40.
But Eminence went on a 12-2 run to open up a 10-point lead with 1:50 left.
Chase Howard hit a 15 footer to stop the run and Henry County called timeout to set up their press with 57.5 seconds to go.
On the ensuing play, Young was called for a technical foul for reaching over the baseline while guarding the inbounds passer.
Dixie hit one of two technical free throws and Eminence retained possession.
The Warriors inbounded the ball and were fouled again. A technical foul was called on the Cats again, but Eminence converted only one of the four free throws.
The lead was now 10 points with 53.5 seconds to go and the Warriors seemed safely on their way to the semi finals.
Dixie hit two more free throws to increase the lead to 12 points with 50.9 seconds before the Cats staged their comeback rally that featured 3-pointers by West, Jeffries and Estes.
Two Dixie free throws with 11.2 seconds to go proved to be the difference between the teams.
Wildcat Coach Enoch Welch felt that defensively his team did what they needed to do but it was the free throw line that made the difference.
“I felt that one of our strategies was to take away their 3-point shot and they hit only three on the night,” he said. “But they were more aggressive going to the rim and got to the free throw line more often and that was the difference in the game. They hit 18 free throws and we hit five.
“We tried to turn them to their weak hand, but they hit some tough shots down the stretch. They worked hard and deserved to win. Any excuse we make takes away from their performance. They did a great job.”
Welch paid tribute to Jeffries.
“Derek is our lone senior,” he said. “He has worked hard over his career and leaves a legacy. For him the ball doesn’t stop bouncing because he gets to play at Transy next year. None of our players’ careers are over. We just need to come back and work harder.”
After the game coach Chris Nethery felt that a key difference was stopping the Cats’ potent inside game.
“I watched them play Trimble and we used the same defense that Trimble did, so I guess I need to give some credit to Coach Leap at Trimble County,” he said. “We were able to get Henry to take some shots that we wanted them to take, but late, they hit everything. They got some momentum and we missed some free throws and let them back in. If we hit the free throws, we don’t have to sweat it.”
Nethery spread the praise for his team’s win. “Jalen had a great game,” he said. “Cornelius also had some big baskets, as did Daishon Moore who I thought did a good job inside. Defensively, Brandon had six blocks and 12 rebounds.”
“All season we’ve told our kids that it’s not about Henry, it was about getting to regional (tournament) which was our goal. Henry County happened to be a team that we had to go through to make that happen. We still have a tough one to play to get there.”
Nethery complimented the Wildcats. “Henry played a great game,” he said. “We were able to neutralize their inside game which a lot of people haven’t been able to do and they still found a way to have a chance in the end. I thought Estes played great and kept them in it.”