In a match that went down to the wire, the Cedar Shoals Jaguars (15-1) edged out the Clarke Central Gladiators (7-4) 58-57 this past Saturday, January 4. The victory now places the Jags on top of the Region 8 5-A basketball standings and extends their winning streak to ten.
Even with their lead in the standings, the biggest accomplishment on Saturday can’t be found on a stat sheet or leaderboard.
“Rivalry game, it hits different than any other game,” said shooting guard Tyler “Chip” Johnson. “The whole city comes out and watches.”
The Shoals retained the Classic City crown and currently hold a four-game winning streak against their crosstown rivals in basketball.
Ranked 97th in the state (via MaxPreps), the Gladiators came in as underdogs with a distinct gameplan to face-off against a highly touted Cedar Shoals team ranked 21st.
“We’ve got to keep the guards in front of them, we can’t let their guards penetrate and get open shots,” said Central Head Coach Andre McIntyre, minutes before the game. “We can’t let their guards outplay our guards.”
With Central’s starting point guard, senior Issac Ward, on the bench with an injury, the Gladiators knew they would be challenged to keep up with the Jags’ tandem of Johnson and sophomore point guard Kashik Brown.
“Having his (Ward’s) maturity and leadership affects us,” said McIntyre. “Issac is such a cerebral player, he makes everybody do the right plays.”
The Westsiders proved their worth early on with a 15-14 lead with 2:26 left in the 1st quarter, tightly guarding Johnson and senior forward Quincy Canty and capitalizing off some early foul trouble for Brown and fellow point guard senior Jamal McIntosh, both of whom committed three fouls in the first half.
With depth on their side, losing their ball handlers early only showcased the Jaguars’ balanced offense as senior guard Jaiden Williams came off the bench with 8 points at halftime, leading the Jags to a comfortable 33-25 lead.
“I noticed in the first quarter they started face guarding me, so we were trying to put more plays in trying to get me and Quincy open,” Johnson said.
Because of Central’s inability to slow down Cedar, Coach McIntyre adjusted to a 2-3 zone defense at halftime.
Lead by center Chris Johnson, a newfound Gladiators’ defensive presence led them to a 47-45 lead over Cedar Shoals at the end of the third quarter.
“It (zone defense) disturbed us because we only had three practices in three weeks, and we didn’t focus on 2-3 defenses,” Tyler Johnson. Both teams competed in holiday tournaments in Florida between Christmas and their first game back in region play.
With the Glads exposing the Jags’ rustiness, the game became a nail biter heading into the final eight minutes.
“There’s no excuse there, they had a good game plan and came out and executed their game plan,” said Cedar Head Coach L’Dreco Thomas.
Down in the fourth quarter, the Jaguars relied on their big time players to get the big time plays down the stretch.
Cedar forward senior Quincy Canty drew two shooting fouls in the final 2:30, hitting three out of four of his free throws to put the Jaguars ahead 58-55.
With 12.2 seconds left in the game, senior Central guard Justin Layne drove to the basket for an easy lay in to make the score 57-58, but it wasn’t enough. The buzzer rang from the scoreboard before the ball could ever come back into play.
Although Cedar has won five of the last seven duels against their rivals, high expectations pre-game led to mixed emotions post-game.
“We played alright, it wasn’t our best, but we got the W,” McIntosh said.
The Jaguars’ star duo’s dominance cannot be ignored. Canty finished with 19 points and 4 rebounds, and Tyler Johnson had 14 points, 3 assists and 4 steals. But it was senior forward Rickil Wilingham who was named as Coach Thomas’ player of the game after taking a charge to force a turnover with 27 seconds left in play.
“That charge at the end was probably the biggest play of the game,” said Thomas. “He may not show up in the stat sheets in points and rebounds, but he had guts enough to take three charges and sometimes those little things make the differences in the game.”
The Jaguars next face off against the Buford Wolves (12-4) at home on January 7 at 7:30 PM, and they will play at Clarke Central on January 25 where the Gladiators seek redemption.