by Rob Grubbs
With the region tournament only a week away, the Fayette County Tigers traveled to Whitewater Tuesday evening as they both make their final preparations for the upcoming tournamey action.
As Fayette County boys coach Andre Flynn said, “With these in-county games, you can ignore the records. These turn out to be tough, physical contests, the kind of games that get you prepared for what’s ahead.”
Once the dust has settled and the gym lights were turned off, Fayette County had earned a sweep and some more confidence as the stakes get higher.
After an outstanding rendition of the national anthem by Lady Wildcat forward Mariah McCastle to start the girls game, coach John Strickland’s Tigers (17-6), riding a four-game winning streak and a secured two seed in the tournament, faced off against Whitewater. This was the Cats senior night, as they would recognize Haley Buchanan, Jordyn Miller, and Destiny Cruz during and after the game.
Whitewater opened in a 1-2-2 zone to try and force the Tigers to beat them with the outside shot, but Rikkelle Miller found her range quickly and was able to give her team an early advantage. On defense, Fayette County applied a relentless full court press with constant pressure from Maegan Barkley at the point. With Whitewater’s point guard still out with an injury, the Wildcats couldn’t overcome the pressure and the athleticism of Fayette County.
As the Tigers extended the lead, senior Darryl Langford dominated the game on both ends of the floor, playing stifling defense on Whitewater’s inside game and slashing to the basket for points on offense. Langford, who is going to continue her basketball career at the US Naval Academy and eventually serve our country, fought back from being sick earlier in the week to finish with a game-high 15 points as the Lady Tigers prevailed 43-20.
Afterwards, she said, “We played well tonight. Our defense played as a unit and forced a lot of turnovers which we converted to points. We will need to continue to improve to play deep into the tournament.”
Coach Strickland added, “We did not make the (state) tournament last year which hurt us. We are looking forward to seeing how deep we can go this year. This is a great group of girls who play together.”
For Whitewater, it continues to be a case of what could have been as they struggle to get healthy and regain full strength.
The boys game featured two of the top players in the county, Fayette County’s Noah Gurley and Whitewater’s Josh Graham. The Tigers (18-6) will be the number one seed in the region tournament and on paper seemed to be an easy favorite, but as Coach Flynn noted, these county games are always close.
There was a sense of electricity in the building as the game started, both teams were playing fast and with high energy, which was creating a blinding pace of back-and-forth action and made things tough for the game officials, who could not seem to make either side happy.
With Gurley and Phillip Young leading the way, the Tigers enjoyed a two-point lead at the half, but Whitewater was staying close behind Graham and a sold defensive effort.
After the half, Whitewater made their move, Copeland Jackson was scoring from the outside and Graham was dominant, scoring 10 of his 20 points in the third quarter alone, including a long range three as the buzzer ended the third. The Wildcats had turned the halftime deficit into a one-point lead with one quarter left to play.
Coach Flynn’s team came off the bench in droves, constantly rotating his entire roster into the game with fresh legs. They seemed to be a little quicker in the final quarter and when Graham picked up his fourth foul early, he had to decrease the intensity in his defense. With 3:42 remaining, Josh Dupree hit a 3-pointer that put Fayette County up by four, which seemed to be the turning point of the quarter. Shortly after, Graham fouled out and the Wildcats were forced to foul on each possession. It was just too much of a hill to climb as the Tigers would win by the final score of 64-56. Gurley would finish with a game-high 21 points, Young added 17, and Austin Nesmith tallied 11 for the winners.
Flynn commented afterwards, “It was good hard win for us. We will take that into Saturday when we face another county rival, Sandy Creek.”