CENTRE – Two previous meetings on the basketball court this season between Sand Rock and Spring Garden’s varsity boys have gone down to the wire.
It was no surprise their third in the Cherokee County Tournament championship game on Saturday was another thrilling nail biter.
A buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the first half by Sand Rock senior guard Logan Wood, and pair of free throws by sophomore guard Jacob St. Clair in the game’s final 1.2 seconds loomed large in the Class 2A, No. 7 Wildcats’ 69-65 victory.
It’s the second straight Cherokee County championship Sand Rock (17-4) has won, and their 10th overall since 1957.
It’s also the third straight time this season Sand Rock has defeated the Panthers.
“The last two times they’ve had the ball at the end of the game. I kind of wanted it to be us this time,” Sand Rock coach John Blackwell said. “(Spring Garden) Coach (Ricky) Austin is too good a coach and his players are too good, so if I could control it as a coach, I didn’t want them to have the ball at the end of the game again.
“We were fortunate enough that we had the ball at the end of the game, and then we hit free throws at the end that helped too.”
After being fouled following an inbound pass from Cade Ballenger, St. Clair calmly stepped to the line with the Wildcats up by a bucket. He sank both shots to essentially end the game.
“I was thinking about how many I hit a day. I always hit 150 a day. I knew I was going to hit them,” said St. Clair, who was 6-of-6 from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 22 points, including a pair of treys.
But it could have been an entirely different situation for Sand Rock in the game’s closing seconds.
Before St. Clair made the final shots to ice the game, No. 10 Spring Garden (15-7) had a chance to tie or take the lead with 2.5 seconds remaining after Ballenger made the back end of two free throws to put the Wildcats up 67-65.
Panther senior forward Weston Kirk tossed an inbound pass the length of the court to junior point guard Cooper Austin. The pass sailed away from a diving Austin out of bounds, giving the ball back to the Wildcats.
“I thought I had a good play drawn up for the long pass to Cooper, but Weston lost the ball,” Coach Austin said. “It slid off the side of his hand. It was there, but that’s the game. It just didn’t bounce our way. It bounced their way.”
The entire game was just as close as the closing seconds. The two teams were tied at 14 at the end of the first quarter. Wood’s buzzer-beating trey before halftime pulled Sand Rock within a point of the Panthers, 28-27. The Wildcats held a 48-45 advantage at the end of three quarters.
“It seems to be that kind of game between us and Sand Rock right now. We know each other real well, and they’ve just got a little bit more of an advantage,” Coach Austin said. “Their length is still tough. They’ve got several offensive threats. They’ve got more than two scorers. That seems to be the difference.”
Kirk collected 34 points, including seven 3-pointers, to lead the Panthers. He also grabbed six rebounds, blocked three shots, had two assists and a steal. Cooper Austin sank five first-half treys and finished with 25 points to go along with six boards, three assists and two steals.
“I’m proud of them putting us on their backs,” Coach Austin said of Kirk and his son. “It’s inside and outside. There’s no shot they’re scared to take. They’re carrying us a little bit right now.”
Garyn Sharpe led the Wildcats with 23 points and seven rebounds. Xander Bradley rang for 11 points, grabbed six rebounds and had four blocks. Kaden Justice finished with seven points and 14 rebounds. Ballenger had six boards and five assists to go along with three points.
“County tournaments, I love them. It’s real big, but our ultimate goal is still two weeks away,” Sand Rock coach John Blackwell said, referring to the area tournament. “I’m not trying to make light of them (county championships). My whole coaching career, I’ve really tried to take a lot of pride in playing in that championship game, but I just want our guys to realize that this is not our ultimate goal.”
Junior Varsity Boys County Championship
Cherokee County 45, Sand Rock 43
CENTRE – Colin Givens sank a pair of free throws with 5.6 seconds remaining, lifting the Cherokee County junior varsity boys to a 45-43 comeback victory over Sand Rock to claim the Cherokee County Junior Varsity Boys championship.
Givens was 11-of-13 from the free-throw line for the game. He led the Warriors with 13 points. Jackson Neyman added 11 points. Zachary Gaylor had 10 points and Eli Martin finished with six points.
Logan Crider led the Wildcats with 18 points. Jacob Cornejo finished with 14 points.
Sand Rock led 14-9 at the end of the first quarter, 22-17 at halftime, and 33-27 at the end of three quarters before the Warriors went on a 18-10 run in the fourth for the final.