By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
CENTRE – Of late, the close basketball games haven’t gone in favor of the Cherokee County Warriors.
They lost a three-point game at defending Class 4A state champion Jacksonville on Jan. 10, then dropped a three-point decision at home against Piedmont two days later. The Warriors also fell in a four-point contest at home against Fort Payne on Tuesday.
On Saturday night in the Cherokee County Tournament championship game against Sand Rock, the Warriors found themselves in another tight battle down the stretch. Only this time, they were able to prevail.
With the game tied at 53 with 8.4 seconds remaining, Cade Hopper in-bounded the ball from the left side of the Warrior goal to senior guard Malachi Horton. Horton took the ball from the top of the key and drove to his left toward the basket. He laid the ball up, but it rimmed off the glass. Jaden Wilson then pulled the rebound over Sand Rock’s Logan Crider and put up a shot that also rimmed out. Horton then tipped the ball up and into the goal as time expired, lifting the Warriors to a thrilling 55-53 victory.
The win gave the Warriors their first Cherokee County tournament title since 2018.
“Coming out of the timeout before the end of the game, we were trying to set up a play to Jack (Amos), but they were face guarding him,” said Horton, who led the Warriors with 15 points. “I knew I had to make a play, so I drove. I missed the layup, but was waiting for the ball to come down. I timed it perfect. I got the perfect tip and it went in.”
Horton’s tip was the basket that ended the game, but it was another basket he made with 32 seconds remaining that gave the Warriors (11-8) a 53-51 advantage after Sand Rock’s Ben Dale gave the Wildcats (15-8) their first lead in the fourth quarter with a basket with 3:24 remaining in the game.
After Horton’s trey, Sand Rock’s Jacob StClair was fouled and sent to the line. StClair made both free throws to tie the game at 53 with 30 seconds left.
Following a timeout, the Warriors in-bounded the ball. Hays called timeout with 8.4 seconds remaining to draw up one last play for the win.
“We had a play drawn up, and we had a second option. It ended up going to the second option,” Hays said. “Malachi had a good look at the goal. He ended up missing it, but when the rebound came off, he got the tip back. When the ball went through, I didn’t think he actually got it off in time. When it went through the net, I heard the horn buzz and it all went wild after that.”
In more ways than one.
Following Horton’s buzzer beater, many of the Warrior players ran to their student section to celebrate, while Sand Rock was lining up for the post-game handshake. Tempers flared and scuffles ensued stemming from the Warriors’ celebration.
“When you lose a close game at the buzzer like that, only one team is happy,” Sand Rock coach John Blackwell said. “If we would’ve won, if we would’ve tipped it in, we would’ve gone to our student section yelling, cheering and jumping up and down, but in my 28 years, I don’t think I’ve ever had a player run to half court as soon as the buzzer goes off and wave at the other team and tell them ‘Goodbye, go home.’
“I think a lot of things in athletics and sports can be prevented if players and coaches play and coach with class and character. I told our guys we’re going to go shake their hand, and when they get that first-place trophy, we’re going to stand and show them respect. We’re going to have class and character. It’s just frustrating.
“The main thing I want to say is win, lose or draw, I feel like Sand Rock guys play with class and character. We’re going to shake your hand if we lose. We’re going to shake your hand if we win. We’re going to play with class and character. For 28 years I’ve coached that way. We’re going to play with class and character.”
Hays said he apologized to Blackwell following the post-game antics.
“That was a lot of what our post-game locker room talk was about,” Hays said. “We played an amazing game and had a great ending, and then we put a stain on it because of the post-game antics. We had a talk. We teach class, and sometimes in these kinds of rivalry games, sometimes it just doesn’t come out.
“It was a tough game. Both teams played hard. There was some chippiness in the game that kind of led to the post game. It was very disappointing to see how some of the behavior at the end was. That will get handled internally.
“I just hate that’s what we had to talk about. They deserve to be celebrating and talking about how great of a game it was, but now all the conversation is going to be turned on what happened after the game instead of what happened in the game. We’ve got to learn from that. That’s a reflection on our program and me and everything we do. I just don’t want that to be what Warrior basketball is about. I don’t want that to be what Cherokee County basketball is about. Emotion overtook us at the end. It’s unfortunate and sad that’s what a lot of the headlines are going to say whenever people are talking about it. It didn’t go how it should’ve gone. You’ve got to show class. I talked to Coach Blackwell after the game, and I was apologetic about how it ended. I’m glad it was a fun game, but we’ve got to do a better job of winning and losing.”
As far as the game, it was a back-and-forth affair. The Warriors built a 22-13 advantage at the end of the first quarter, but Sand Rock battled back within a point at halftime, 30-29.
Cherokee County, which has seen it share of struggles in the third quarter this season, extended its lead out to 10 points at 43-33 following a basket and free throw by Amos with 3:49 left in the quarter.
Again, the Wildcats didn’t back down. They managed to make it a six-point deficit at 49-43 after three, and briefly took a 51-50 lead with 3:24 to go in the fourth on a basket by Ben Dale.
That would be the last time the Wildcats held the lead. It set the stage for Horton’s crucial 3-pointer and tip in at the buzzer.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Blackwell said. “The last thing coming out of that timeout with eight seconds to go, I told the guys ‘Make the first shot beat us. We’ve got to screen out.’ I think it was the third shot, a shot and two tips. As much as you want to get mad or get aggravated, if we screen out, we go to overtime. We might not have won, but we go to overtime.
“It’s frustrating, but you look at a school that size and we’re battling toe-to-toe with them and with the type athletes that have and good coaching. When Sand Rock can compete against that type of coaching, that type of athlete and that type of team and push them to the final buzzer, I’m happy. I’m never happy with a loss, but I’m happy with the effort. I’m proud of our guys.”
“The whole game was a dogfight,” Hays said. “We got on them pretty good the first quarter. The second quarter, they got on us. The third quarter, we took a little bit of an advantage and went at them pretty good. Kaden (Justice) got in a little foul trouble and that helped us with some match-ups, but in the fourth, they came back and answered.”
StClair rang for a game-high 22 points for Sand Rock. Dale delivered 14 points and Justice finished with seven points.
Amos scored 13 points for the Warriors. Wilson netted 12. Hopper and Eli Martin finished with six and five points respectively.
“Our last three games (coming into the county tournament), we’ve been in a funk. Coming into this game we knew we had to hunker down,” Horton said. “It’s been a while since we’ve brought the championship back to CC. It’s been since 2018, my sophomore year. It’s just big to bring it back to Cherokee County.”
Cherokee County Junior Varsity Boys Championship
Cherokee County 40, Cedar Bluff 32
CENTRE – Ben Moseley and Aiden Whitefield both scored nine points to lead the Cherokee County junior varsity boys to a 40-32 victory over Cedar Bluff in the Cherokee County Junior Varsity Boys championship game on Saturday.
Keyshawn Woods added seven points. De’zantae Diamond and Cooper Allen both finished with six points.
Hunter Jenkins topped Cedar Bluff with a game-high 12 points. Isaac Bishop added seven points and Hunter Stallings finished with six points.
Cedar Bluff began the game on an 8-0 run before the Warriors made it an 8-6 game after one. Cherokee County surged out in front 21-13 at halftime and led 26-19 after three quarters.