Contributed by Shannon Fagan, Sports Editor, Cherokee County Herald| CENTRE – Simply put, it lived up to what a top-five high school basketball matchup should be.
And, like so many times throughout the 2014-15 season, Joel Wester delivered when his team needed him to the most.
Wester sank a 3-pointer with 20 seconds remaining to rally Class 4A, No. 2 Cherokee County from seven down in the fourth quarter and a thrilling 62-61 victory over No. 3 Saks in the sub-regional round of the playoffs on Tuesday night.
It’s the first trip to the Northeast Regional semifinals at Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum for the Warriors (28-2) since the 2010 season.
“We just keep doing it,” Wester said. “We were down late in the game, but we just kept believing and just kept playing the next play. People like Justin (McKnight) came in and hit some big shots. Jacob (Graves) got me the pass on the one I hit late. Nahum (Horton) came up with the big rebound at the end. We just did what we had to do to win.”
Wester’s father and Warrior head coach Neal Wester said how his son’s final trey of the game came to pass “really embodies our team.”
“I think Quartez (Henderson) got the rebound. He gave it up to Jacob. Jacob had a shot, and he gave it up to Joel for a better shot. That’s the way teammates play,” an emotional Coach Wester said. “Our guys are really incredible. They never give up. They keep on playing. They never get rattled. We were playing against a great team, and they just did it.”
After the two teams battled to a 28-all tie at halftime, the Wildcats (21-6) managed to take a 47-42 lead into the fourth quarter. They went up 52-45 on a 3-pointer by Quen Williams with 6:20 remaining in the game.
A pair of free throws by Joel Wester cut Saks’ advantage to 52-47. Then, the Warriors forced a steal and the younger Wester put it in the basket, shrinking the Wildcat lead even further to 52-49 with 5:43 remaining.
McKnight tied the game at 52 with his second 3-pointer of the quarter, but the tie was short-lived.
Saks’ Makel Taylor canned another Wildcat trey at the four-minute mark, putting the Wildcats back in front 55-52.
Joel Wester tied the game again at 55 with another 3-pointer with 2:40 to go, but Saks once again answered on another Williams trey that gave the Wildcats a 58-55 lead.
A layup by Saks’ Monty Young pushed the Wildcats out to a seemingly comfortable 60-55 advantage with 1:38 left, but the Warriors proved once again to have ice in their veins.
The Warriors’ Tyren Dupree snagged a rebound off a miss and put the ball in the basket. He was also fouled on the play, but couldn’t connect on the ensuing free throw. With 1:20 remaining, the Warriors were looking for a defensive stop, trailing 60-57.
Saks’ Darion Coleman was fouled with 40 seconds left, sending him to the line for a one-and-one. Coleman sank his first free throw, but missed the second, which was rebounded by Dupree. Henderson drove the ball for a basket and was fouled with 30.8 seconds left. He missed his free-throw attempt, which was rebounded by the Wildcats’ Young.
Coleman was then fouled and sent to the line for a one-and-one at the other end with 27.2 seconds. Coleman’s shot clanked off the rim and was rebounded by the Warriors’ Henderson, setting the stage for Joel Wester’s final trey of the night.
After Joel Wester sank his final 3-pointer, Saks coach Jonathan Miller called timeout with 17.6 seconds remaining. The Wildcats drove the length of the floor, but Young’s shot missed the mark. A battle for the ball ensued, which fell into Horton’s hands as time expired.
“I saw him shoot the ball, and I was just hoping and praying it didn’t go in,” Horton said. “I saw it come off Tyren’s hands and I saw their guy go for it, so I just reached my arms out to try and grab it. I turned and watched the clock go out. It was just an exciting moment for me. This is what I’ve been working for all season, to help my team be in the best position to get to where we want to be.”
The Wildcats lost the game despite sinking 11 treys in the game.
“That’s the way we play. That’s our strength and we play to it,” Miller said. “We hit some shots tonight and got out to a little bit of a lead in the second half, but we just couldn’t stretch it out far enough. That’s just the way it worked out tonight. It’s a tough loss.
“We just didn’t make enough plays down the stretch. That’s disappointing when you get a lead, but that’s the way basketball works. You’ve got to finish. You’ve got make those crucial plays down the stretch, and we just didn’t do that.”
Joel Wester commended Saks on their valiant effort.
“They’re good,” he said. “Some of those shots they hit, we were playing as good of defense as we could play. They were just making them anyway, but we just found a way to do what we had to do.”
Joel Wester led the Warriors with 18 points, including four 3-pointers (two in the final quarter). Henderson added 13 points, six rebounds, two steals, an assist and a blocked shot. Dupree had nine points, nine boards, two steals, two assists and a blocked shot. Horton also contributed nine points to go along with six boards and a blocked shot. McKnight finished with six points and five rebounds.
Coleman collected 21 points for the Wildcats, including five 3-pointers. Williams added 19 points, including four treys. Taylor tallied nine points and five boards.
Next up for the Warriors is their Northeast Regional semifinal game against Westminster Christian of Huntsville. Westminster (18-11) defeated J.B. Pennington 53-31 in other sub-regional action Tuesday. The regional semifinal game is set for 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Pete Mathews Coliseum.
“We’re used to playing in big games. We’re ready for it,” McKnight said. “I just can’t wait.”