Wildcats split opening-week games for 1-1 start

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By Tommie Kendall

Sports editor

The Henry County boys’ basketball team opened last season with a 1-1 record, then went on to celebrate one of its best campaigns in school history with a 19-11 mark and 8th Region Tournament appearance.

Last week, with new faces and minus six seniors from last year’s squad, the Wildcats repeated with a 1-1 opening-week mark. Now, they hope to survive the early-season road games ahead and repeat last year’s success.

“We are missing a little chemistry right now because most of our players haven’t played a lot together yet, but we’ll get better — it’s just going to take time,” said Jason Holland, who started his fourth season as Henry’s head coach last week. “I still don’t know what to expect from this group, but they believe in themselves, and that’s the most important thing. I’ve been surprised with how hard they’ve worked so far.”

The scrappy Wildcats opened their season with a loss at Walton-Verona (58-48) last Thursday night, then defeated Belfry (72-55) on Saturday in the Wildcat Tipp-Off Classic at Shelby Valley.

Henry’s first four games are on the road, along with its first seven of 10.

“December is a tough month for us, but we just have to play and continue to get better,” Holland explained. “With this team being so young, we have to improve each week, each game, each practice.”

Against Walton-Verona in the season opener, Henry was ahead 12-10 following the first quarter before Walton used a 40-second stretch that included three three-point baskets to take a 30-22 advantage into the half.

The Wildcats then came out of the locker room to outscore Walton 11-1 during the third quarter and grab a two-point lead with just the fourth remaining. Ben Roberts was double teamed late in the third and found Pete Baldwin for a trey as time expired to give the Cats the slim 33-31 advantage.

But during the final period, Walton took the lead off 12-of-14 shooting from the free-throw line and pushed it to 10 points by the time the final buzzer sounded. Walton was ahead by just two points with two minutes remaining before forcing a Henry turnover, knocking down a long-range jumper and hitting the crucial free throws for the see-saw win.

Walton went to the line 20 times during the second half alone, while Henry was seven-of-10 in the entire game.

“I thought we played well defensively, but you can’t guard them on the free-throw line,” Holland said of Walton, who made 11 more made free throws than Henry. “Walton hit their free throws down the stretch, and I think that was the difference in the game.”

Cody Hinkle was the only Henry player to reach double figures in scoring with 12 points, while also pulling down 14 rebounds to start his junior season with a double-double. Joey Pollard added nine points for the Wildcats, while Cari Dunaway and Brad Taylor scored six each, Baldwin scored five, Steven Tillett scored four, and Roberts and Conner Jeffries scored two each.

Henry finished with 20-plus turnovers in the hostile environment, which left Holland 0-4 at Walton in his tenure at HCHS.

“We just have to execute better,” Holland said. “You can’t commit more than 20 turnovers and expect to win on the road, especially at Walton.”

Henry was already at a disadvantage with its younger players, opposed to Walton starting five seniors. Plus, Dunaway and Baldwin had been with the team just a few days before opening tip-off. Dunaway played on the Wildcat football team that lost to Paducah Tilghman in the third round of the state playoffs the Friday before, and Baldwin was just released to play after transferring from Alabama.

“I was proud of the effort from our players,” Holland said. “For us to battle back and take the lead under those circumstances was great. I thought we played hard.”

Following the loss, Henry was back in action two days later against Belfry in the Wildcat Tip-Off Classic, where the Wildcats earned their first win this season.

After a 13-13 tie following first-quarter action, Henry outscored Belfry 16-10 during the second quarter and 21-9 during the third, including an 18-2 run. Henry got up by as many as 32 points.

“Belfry was a good win for us,” Holland said. “They have a good team and we did a much better job than our first time out.”

Henry committed just nine turnovers, and 11 different players scored: Hinkle scored 16 points, Pollard and Tillett scored 11 points each, Dunaway scored nine points, Taylor scored six points, Jeffries and Brock Way scored five points each, Baldwin scored four points, Roberts and Dylan Smith scored two points each, and Matt Long added one point. Tillett, a junior who didn’t play last season, knocked down two three pointers early in the game to keep it close before the Wildcats stormed away to the 17-point win.

Hinkle pulled down 12 boards to finish with another double-double.

Henry used a suffocating defensive press to outscore Belfry 8-0 in the final two minutes of the second quarter, and continued to execute on Belfry’s mistakes into the second half. Henry then went to its bench, which allowed Belfry to cut into its deficit.

In the end, though, the visiting Wildcats left with their first win of the season to start out at 1-1.

The Cats played at North Bullitt Tuesday night and will travel to Gallatin County this Friday in a rematch of last year’s 31st District Tournament championship game, which Gallatin won, 51-49.

“We won’t really know what kind of team we have until we play Gallatin,” Holland said. “That will be the test.”

E-mail us about this story at sports@hclocal.com.