MARIETTA — Following a five-point loss to rival Etowah in last season’s region championship game, Cherokee coach Roger Kvam had a talk with his players.
“He met with us at the end of last season and we all said our one goal for this season was to win region,” Cherokee junior Bennett Ulm said. “It feels great to accomplish it.”
Playing on the home court of their opponent, Cherokee defeated Walton 64-49 on Friday night to win the Region 4AAAAAAA championship. It was the first boys basketball region championship in school history.
Cherokee, a school which opened its doors in 1956, had seen its fair share of second-place finishes over the years, but from the opening weeks of the season this year’s group seemed determined to bring the region championship trophy back to Canton.
“It’s awesome,” Kvam said. “A lot of hard work went into this and I’m very proud of these kids. We won our three tournaments this season and I kept telling them there’s a bigger tournament that we’re gonna play in February and that’s the one that really matters.”
Led by a pair of juniors, the Warriors (23-4) pulled away from the Raiders (16-12) in the second half to secure the victory. Early on, however, the outcome was far less certain.
Walton found pockets in Cherokee’s 2-3 zone and scored on a nicely designed inbounds play to take a 6-2 lead early in the first quarter but Cherokee responded with three consecutive 3-pointers to retake the lead midway through the period. Cherokee’s junior forward Elijah Tucker finished with nine points in the first quarter and was backed up by teammate and fellow junior Taihland Owens.
Owens was awarded as the Region Player of the Year prior to the game and showed early on why he’s one of the top rated juniors in the state. Shooting with confidence as he has all season long, Owens connected on consecutive 3-pointers to close out the first quarter and Cherokee led 20-10 entering the second.
“Our energy on the defensive end was the difference,” Owens said. “We’ll have some offensive possessions where we won’t execute but throughout the whole game we had more energy on the defensive end and that’s why we closed it out.”
“This means a lot because as a freshman we got out first round and last year lost in the championship when we could have made history. But this year we remained focused throughout the season, through all those practices, and now this is where we are. I’ve never felt anything like this before.”
Walton made a push in the second quarter behind a 3-point barrage of its own. Dylan Pumpian, Carson Adler, and David Sickles all knocked down shots from behind the arc while Luka Avaliani directed the offense from the point guard position.
Walton’s shooting forced Cherokee out of its zone defense and cut Cherokee’s lead to 31-25 entering the halftime locker rooms.
“I thought our team played really well but when (Cherokee) plays really well there’s not too many teams who can beat them,” Walton coach Bo Abney said. “They have some really good players who hit some really tough shots and hats off to them because they played better than us tonight. Coach Kvam has been at this a long time so he knows how to make adjustments.
“Being in the region championship we’ll get a home playoff game and we haven’t had one of those in over 10 years so our kids are excited about that. We’re disappointed now and we’ll never settle for losing, but we’re still playing and the season’s not over.”
One of the adjustments made by Kvam was staying in man-to-man defense for the entirety of the second half.
“We felt like we were losing them in the zone and had a better chance of taking away the 3 in man-to-man,” Kvam said. “We did a great job with that but Elijah (Tucker) was an absolute monster for us.”
Tucker’s presence in the paint was felt throughout the second half as he finished with a game-high 25 points on 9-for-15 shooting to go along with nine rebounds and two assists. More than once Tucker scored off offensive rebounds and multiple thunderous dunks in the fourth quarter began to take the air out of the home crowd hoping for a comeback.
“It feels great because I know this meant the world to coach Kvam,” Tucker said. “It just felt amazing because we wanted to win it for him and the coaching staff more than anything.”
Avaliani led Walton with 17 points while Pumpian added 13. The Raiders stayed within striking distance into the fourth quarter but the Warriors executed offensively and took advantage of the foul line to seal the victory. Cherokee shot 23-for-26 from the foul line including a perfect 12-for-12 in the fourth quarter.
Owens finished with 16 points and four rebounds while Ulm finished with 13 points, three assists and two rebounds. The starters for both sides were subbed out in the final minutes and the Cherokee fans were able to enjoy the final seconds after their decades-long wait for a region title.
“It was a lot to take in,” Ulm said. “It was our goal from the beginning of the season and it just feels like a dream that we finally got here. Coach (Kvam) has worked hard his whole career and he really wanted it so it feels good to see him finally achieve that.”
Both Cherokee and Walton will host first round state playoff games this weekend with the opponents yet to be determined.