MARIETTA — For Cherokee boys basketball coach Roger Kvam, his recent milestone victories have included a bit of added significance.
In 2013, Kvam earned his 400th career win when Cherokee knocked off a Wheeler team that included future Boston Celtics standout Jaylen Brown. On Monday night, Kvam picked up his 500th career victory as Cherokee claimed the Hounds Holiday Hoop Classic championship with a 60-42 win over Westminster.
“That 400th win was a really big one for us because Wheeler’s front line was so much bigger than we were,” said Kvam, who has been at Cherokee since 2003, following 113 wins over seven years at Sprayberry. “And now, this one, I don’t know. It just seems like these milestones have been pretty special.”
Cherokee (15-1) won the final game of the three-day tournament at Pope and showed why it is ranked in the top 10 of Class AAAAAAA. Four different players scored on the Warriors’ first four baskets, but it was junior guard Taihland Owens who shined brightest. Owens scored 20 points in the first half, on his way to a game-high 26, and never seemed in a rush while doing so.
Cherokee ran its offensive sets with precision in the first half, getting the ball inside to Elijah Tucker and Zack Vickers, but Owens’ offensive ability took over early in the second quarter.
After converting on a fall-away, buzzer-beating putback to end the first quarter, Owens began the second with a basket and drew a foul to complete a three-point play. He scored the first eight points in the quarter as Cherokee took a 34-26 halftime lead.
“He has more freedom in our offense than I think any kid I’ve ever coached,” Kvam said of Owens. “We kind of have to ride him at times because he plays with supreme confidence. What might be a bad shot for some kids, he makes those, so you kind of just have to live with it. He’s put a lot of work into it, so what you see is a result of a lot of hard work.”
Earlier in the season, Kvam said that in order for Cherokee to succeed this year, it would need players beyond Owens, Tucker and Vickers to contribute.
Matt Snyder and Bennett Ulm did exactly that Monday night.
Using active defense and a smooth, left-handed finishing ability at the rim, Ulm posted 10 points, five steals, four assists and four rebounds. Snyder finished with seven points, five rebounds, three steals and two assists.
“It’s those guys who have to make plays in the games because everyone’s attention goes to Taihland, Elijah and Zach,” Kvam said. “For us to win, it’s those other guys who have to step up.”
Ulm found Tucker for alley-oops on multiple occasions in the fourth quarter, but it was his defense which led to multiple transition points for the Warriors. Tucker finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.
Westminster (11-5) cut the lead to 40-35 midway through the third quarter, forcing Kvam to take a timeout. Vickers, who finished with five points and seven rebounds, converted a strong finish in the paint following the timeout and Westminster was unable to cut any further into the lead in the fourth quarter.
Kvam’s entire family was in attendance to celebrate his achievement, and he held his granddaughter during the postgame celebration. Cherokee girls coach Matt Cates was also in attendance and said working with Kvam has been a pleasure.
“He’s a true family man, and his family always comes first,” Cates said. “He’s also got a great basketball mind. He’s probably forgotten more basketball than I’ll ever know.”
Kvam credited his players and assistant coaches, along with longevity, in allowing him to reach 500 wins.
“It’s a lot of years, and I’ve had a lot of help,” he said. “I feel very blessed because coaching basketball never seemed like work for me. I’ve been in love with the game since I was 13 years old, so finding a job that allowed me to coach is quite something.”