by Rob Grubbs
McIntosh and Whitewater resumed their county basketball rivalry on Tuesday night on the Wildcats’ home court. McIntosh appeared to be well on its way to a sweep, but a furious second half rally and a buzzer beater by Whitewater forward Josh Graham in the boys’ game ended the night in dramatic fashion to forge a split of the two games.
As the season enters into the thick of the region schedule, the McIntosh boys (7-10, 4-3 region) were beginning to put together a hot streak, winning five in a row to push with a perfect mark in 2017. Whitewater (8-11, 3-4), on the other hand, was struggling to regain their early season groove after enduring a five-game losing streak. On paper, it seemed to be a story of two teams headed in separate directions.
On the court, the story of the evening was the dueling of two star players. Lead by forward Cole Guenther, who scored 19 of his 23 points in the first half, McIntosh ran out to a ten-point lead at halftime, 35-25. Guenther was doing it all on the court, hitting the outside shot, including five 3-pointers, cleaning the boards, and playing strong defense. The Chief offense was moving the ball quickly around the court, and Guenther was finishing off possessions with points. It seemed as if the Whitewater defense was a half-step slower at times.
Early in the third quarter, Guenther committed a quick foul and had to sit down. The Wildcats seized the opportunity and proceeded to bruise the Chiefs with a 20-5 run, which created a five-point lead going into the fourth quarter. Whitewater’s Graham took the game over. He was virtually unstoppable in the second half, slashing to the basket in traffic and scoring and getting to the foul line, where he was 8-of-9 from the charity stripe in the second half.
In the final quarter, the game went back-and-forth. Chief guard Bruce Carpenter hit a 3-pointer to tie the game up at 38-38, but Whitewater surged ahead and took a six-point lead with less than two minutes left. After a quick basket, McIntosh forced turnovers on back-to-back inbound plays that Garrett LeClaire scored on. With 22 seconds remaining the score was tied again, 44-44, and McIntosh had erased a six-point deficit in 15 seconds.
After a timeout, Whitewater brought the ball up court in the hands of Graham. There was little doubt who was going to take the final shot. The Cats wanted to milk the clock to insure they either won at the buzzer or pushed the game to overtime. As the clock ticked down, the ball found its way back to Graham, and he launched the winning three from the top of the key right before the buzzer sounded. The gym erupted as the team rushed out to mob Graham, who finished the game with 30 points, at the other end of the court.
Whitewater senior captain Joshua Anthony, who finished with eight points, said, “We knew we were still in the game at halftime. Even though their guy had made a lot of shots, we knew we could get back into it. Our guys were making shots too. Once Josh took that shot, I knew it was going in. What a great victory – we needed that one bad.”
McIntosh has little time reflect on this tough loss as there are upcoming games against rival Starr’s Mill on Friday and Lanier on Saturday, while Whitewater will try and keep the momentum going against Starr’s Mill on Saturday.
In the girls’ game, the Lady Chiefs (13-4, 4-3) were looking to rebound after tough region losses to Griffin and Morrow against a banged up Whitewater team (11-8, 2-5) who would play without one of its starters in guard Courtney Smith.
The Chiefs were frustrated early as Whitewater’s zone defense, led by the strong inside presence of Janiya Jones and Jada Claude, was preventing entry passes inside in to DeLayne Rotolo. Senior guard Savannah Soles countered by making four 3-pointers in the first half to give McIntosh the lead 21-16 lead and force Whitewater to step out and play more man-to-man defense.
The second half began with McIntosh deploying a stifling full court press defense that Whitewater struggled to break, which in turn also opened up the offense for Rotolo, who would score eight of her 15 points after halftime.
The Wildcats were overwhelmed with the press, which highlighted the loss of Smith even more. A valiant effort kept them in the game for a while, but McIntosh would outscore them 29-7 over the second half for the 50-23 final.
“We were frustrated early, but we kept running our offense and getting the ball inside to DeLayne,” said McIntosh coach David Dowse. “After the two tough losses, we needed to right ourselves a bit and get back to our game, which I thought we did tonight.
“We felt real good with our press defense. It changed the complexion of the game.”
For their part, senior captains Rotolo and Soles, who both scored 15, acknowledged the win, but also talked of the work ahead.
Soles said, “We came out with high energy, which was important after our loss to Morrow.”
Rotolo added, “We played as a team, even when we were frustrated early. This game will put us back on track as we continue towards the region tournament.”