On paper, it was a game that was a mismatch.
On the hardwood, it was an instant classic.
Tuesday night at The Wigwam at Southwestern, the 9-0 Warriors were a prohibitive favorite to topple a 3-6 Somerset team, that had already suffered home losses this season to district foes Casey County and Rockcastle County, along with a road loss last week at McCreary Central.
However on Tuesday night, Jeff Cothron’s club came to play against arch-rival Southwestern.
Trae Harmon led the Briar Jumpers with 25 points and a game-high 11 boards, but Southwestern was able to prevail and remain perfect on the year, thanks to a career-high 43 points from senior guard Peyton Gover, and a huge steal by Hunter Cromer at crunch time near the end of the contest.
As a result, it was Southwestern rallying to hold back a very pesky Somerset team, by a final tally of 81-77, in a game that was more like a regional semi final tournament battle, rather than a tilt for bragging rights in late-December.
“I thought we rushed a lot of shots tonight, and I think we struggled to match their (Somerset’s) intensity and their focus for a long time,” stated Southwestern head coach Chris Baker, after watching his team move to a perfect, 10-0 on the season with the hard-fought victory.
“I think you have to give Somerset a lot of credit for their game plan coming into this one, and how they executed it,” continued the first-year Warrior coach. “Down the stretch, Hunter Cromer’s defensive play when he came up with that steal on the sideline late in the game, and we got a transition basket — that was the play of the game, and that was the play that changed the momentum of the game.”
Early on — and for much of the night — this game was a nip and tuck, see-saw affair between these two rivals.
For the contest, there were 15 lead changes and 17 ties, with 10 of those lead changes and six of those ties coming in the fourth quarter of play.
Gover meanwhile, simply went off on the Briar Jumpers, pouring in a career-best 43 points, on a night when he made six three-point baskets.
Southwestern made 11 treys for the game, but Somerset countered that prolific shooting from downtown by the Warriors with a strong inside game, led by Harmon, along with Andrew Wilson and Collin Hartman.
Harmon single-handily kept the Briar Jumpers within striking distance of the Warriors early in the second half, scoring 13 of his 25 points in the third period.
Meanwhile, Wilson notched 14 points, while Hartman pulled down 10 boards, keeping Somerset right in this one until the bitter end.
After his team let this one slip away late, falling to 3-7 on the season, Briar Jumper head coach Jeff Cothron indicated that for now, the big thing for his club is to learn to play with the same intensity and focus in every game, like it did in the loss to the Warriors.
“What we’re doing right now is we’ll go through a stretch of two or three games where we will play really well, and then we don’t show up for a couple of games,” lamented Cothron after the game.
“For whatever reason we have been doing that — this is a unique bunch,” continued the Somerset coach. “When this bunch comes to play, we can play with anybody. We’re right there and we keep getting better. These guys know where they stand as a basketball team. They know where they’re at, and we’re just working on getting better each and every day and in each and every game.”
Southwestern led Somerset by six points at the break — 44-38, thanks in large part to Gover, who tallied 28 of his 43 points in the opening half of play.
However, Somerset remained close at the beginning of the second half, aided by Harmon’s 13 points in the third stanza.
In the fourth period, that’s when things got really, really interesting.
The two clubs traded baskets, and the lead see-sawed back and forth, with neither club being able to put the other away.
There were 10 lead changes in the game’s final eight minutes, and thanks to back to back treys by Somerset’s Jake Cothron, the Briar Jumpers seemed poised for the upset.
Cothron’s first three-point basket put Somerset on top of the Warriors 74-71 with just over three minutes left to play in the game, but a Gover hoop on the next trip down the court for Southwestern trimmed that Somerset lead to 74-73.
After a Peyton Cundiff three pointer put the Warriors back in front of Somerset at 76-74, Cothron’s second trey of the period gave the Briar Jumpers the lead once again, at 77-76.
That however would be Somerset’s last lead of the night, as the Warriors would score the game’s final five points, to come away with a hard-fought, 81-77 win.
As coach Baker pointed out, it was that steal by Hunter Cromer that led to a transition layup for the Warriors, that enabled Southwestern to finally get the upper hand on Somerset, in a game that resembled a 12th Regional Tournament battle instead of a game in December.
“This was a half court game,” stated coach Baker. “We had very few transition buckets. They (Somerset) controlled the glass, and they made it a halfcourt game. We played their game all night.”
“It was a great game plan by coach (Jeff) Cothron and their staff, and they went out and executed it,” added the Southwestern coach. “This was a great crowd in here tonight, and I was really pleased to see how many people came out to watch two really good teams and rivals battle it out. I thought we had a great student section tonight, and this really was a tournament-type atmosphere. I do agree this was more like a 12th Regional Tournament game instead of an early-season game between two rivals.”
The Warriors will not return to action until next Tuesday evening in the opening round of the 5th annual Lake Cumberland Holiday Hoops Basketball Tournament.
For Somerset meanwhile, the Briar Jumpers did fall to 3-7 with the setback, but Cothron says there are better days ahead for his basketball team as the Briar Jumpers get close to the mid-point of the regular season.
“Don’t get me wrong, we want to win every time we go out there and play, but we are not really concerned about the 3-7 record right now,” stated the Somerset coach.
“We realize that this thing is not a sprint, but it’s a marathon, and we know that we have the capability of being a very good basketball team by tournament time,” Cothron stated. “We’ve got to learn to just finish down the stretch. We’re executing sometimes, but the ball sometimes just won’t go in, and we can’t seem to catch a break. But, I’m confident we’ll get there.”
Just like Southwestern, the Briar Jumpers will return to action next Tuesday night in the opening round of the Lake Cumberland Holiday Hoops Basketball Tournament.
The Warriors will meet up with Jeffersontown next Tuesday night at The Wigwam in the first round of the event, while Somerset will open play in the tourney at The Briar Patch against Spring Hill, Tennessee.
SHS — 19 19 22 17 — 77
SW — 21 23 18 19 — 81
Somerset — Harmon 25, Kross Grundy 17, Wilson 14, Cothron 11, Dick 7, Harman 3.
Southwestern — Gover 43, Cundiff 16, Cromer 11, Stevens 5, Gallagher 4, Benadum 2.