The Warriors only two losses of the year came against teams in classifications above them (Class 6A Albertville and Class 5A Etowah). Both of those losses were by a combined total of four points.
The Warriors were 9-2 in games decided by seven points or less, including their last outing, a 62-61 victory over third-ranked Saks in the sub-regional round on Tuesday.
Second-ranked Cherokee County was faced with another close contest during Saturday’s Class 4A Northeast Regional semifinal game against Westminster Christian. But, unlike many of those close games before, the Warriors couldn’t find a way to pull out a win. Their season ended at 28-3 with a 43-38 setback to the Wildcats.
“We had opportunities, but we just come up a couple of plays short,” Cherokee County coach Neal Wester said. “We had some shots, but they didn’t go down. Our kids were playing hard and trying hard, but that’s the game sometimes.”
Westminster Christian coach Ronnie Stapler said the biggest difference in the game was the Wildcats’ defensive effort. They held Cherokee County to a 3-of-19 performance from the 3-point line. Junior guard Joel Wester was limited to just nine points, including a 1-of-9 shooting performance from the 3-point arc.
The only Warrior to reach double figures was freshman forward Tyren Dupree, who netted 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
“Joel can really shoot the ball, and he’s a heck of a player, but their other guys will make some if you leave them open,” Stapler said. “High school kids having to make contested threes is a pretty good order, and that was our deal. If they make contested twos, that’s awesome. We’re going to pat them on the butt, get our bags and go home, but we wanted to contest their threes and make them make tough twos. I think we contested the threes.”
Joel Wester admitted “it was tough for us shooting here.”
“We never really got hot for much of the game at all,” he said. “We couldn’t make many in a row. It’s a different background up here. We thought we’d be used to it. We’ve played in big gyms before, but we never did adjust here.”
Despite their struggles from the perimeter, the Warriors kept things close. They led 19-16 at halftime and built as much as a 10-point advantage at 26-16 with 4:46 remaining in the third quarter on a rebound and putback by Dupree.
Dupree was also fouled on the play and he made the ensuing free throw.
However, the Wildcats closed out out the third quarter on a 13-4 run, cutting Cherokee County’s lead to 30-29 heading to the fourth quarter.
Westminster took its first lead of the second half on Trey Petty’s 3-pointer at the 7:25 mark of the fourth. That lead was short-lived, as Joel Wester canned his only trey on the Warriors ensuing trip up the floor, giving Cherokee County a 33-32 advantage.
Dee Mayfield made a basket on the other end, then Joel Wester returned with a jumper that gave the Warriors a 35-34 lead with 6:18 left in the game.
That proved to be the final time Cherokee County would be out in front, as Pug Strong put the Wildcats on his shoulders. He accounted for the game’s next seven points which gave Westminster a 41-35 advantage with 2:27 left on the clock.
Dupree kept the Warriors within striking distance with a 3-pointer at the 2:04 mark, cutting the Wildcat lead to 41-38. The Warriors had a couple of opportunities to close the gap even further, but Westminster’s defense denied the Warriors, which allowed them to escape with the victory.
“The biggest denominator for us is we’ve been good defensively all year long,” Stapler said. “We’ve struggled some nights offensively, but we’ve been good defensively.”
Strong came off the bench to lead the Wildcats with 14 points. Petty posted 12 points. John Kendall finished with eight points and six rebounds.
Nahum Horton and Preston Grimes both contributed six points for the Warriors. Horton also had seven rebounds.
“We battled hard,” Coach Wester said. “The kids played hard, and I’m proud of their effort. We didn’t play our best game. That’s the way it goes sometimes. They had a lot to do with that. They played good defense and made some shots. That’s pretty much what it boiled down to. We just came up a little short.”
Although they came up short on Saturday, Dupree said he’s proud of what the Warriors accomplished this season.
“We didn’t think we were going to have a season like this,” he said. “We won 14 in a row and started thinking ‘Dang, we’re pretty good.’ We got beat a couple of times during the season, but Coach Wester told us those were practice games for games like this. We made it up here, but we couldn’t pull it out.”
The Warriors’ future looks bright. They lose only Grimes, Trenton Edwards and J.T. Hill from their current lineup to graduation.
Coach Wester said he’s already looking forward to what the Warriors can accomplish next season.
“We have a good nucleus coming back,” he said. “We’ll try to get over this one and enjoy what we did throughout the year, then start working toward next year. These guys have worked really hard in the off-season, and I expect they’ll do the same thing this time. We’ll look forward to it again.”