Cooper scored the first 10 points of the final period to break a tie through three quarters and come away with a 51-44 win over Fern Creek in the 100th Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys’ Sweet Sixteen semifinals Saturday night at Rupp Arena.
Cooper held Fern Creek to its lowest point total of the season. The Tigers’ previous low mark was 46 points in a win over Trinity in the Louisville Invitational Tournament.
Sean McNeil led the Jaguars with 22 points, shooting 7-for-13 from the floor. He scored seven of Cooper’s points during the pivotal run to begin the fourth quarter.
“Coming out of that huddle into the fourth quarter, I could see that they were very connected and they understood what we had to do,” Cooper Coach Tim Sullivan said. “We were being patient but we were still staying aggressive and I thought Sean really led that and did a really nice job of adjusting to the way that they were playing him.”
Cooper led 21-20 at halftime but went down by five points to begin the third quarter. The pace of play started to pick up during the juncture — a disadvantage for the Jaguars, who were intent on grinding things out — and McNeil knew it was important for he and his teammates to reclaim that edge down the stretch.
“That was probably the most athletic team we’ve seen all year and we knew they were gonna be flying,” said Brayden Runion, who scored 15 points and had a team-high five rebounds for Cooper.
Fern Creek outrebounded Cooper 27-15 but turned the ball over 13 times to Cooper’s six. The Tigers, whose only previous losses this season were to Trinity and Hopkinsville (the latter of which it avenged in the first round), were perfect from the free-throw line but only took eight shots; Cooper went 16 of 20 at the charity stripe.
The Tigers didn’t record a point in the fourth quarter until the 2:44 mark. They got to within three points, 47-44, on a putback by Ahmad Price with 28 seconds left but missed their final three shot attempts.
“Sometimes teams they don’t understand, because of the egos and the pride, they think ‘Oh man, we can do this, we can outrun someone,’” Sullivan said. “Our guys, we knew we couldn’t do that and they bought in. … These kids just went out and executed to a T.”
Anthony Wales led Fern Creek with 13 points. Price had eight points and a game-high 11 rebounds for the Tigers, who will lose four seniors but return seven of the nine players who played in the semifinals, including Price and Wales.
This year was Fern Creek’s first time playing in the boys’ Sweet Sixteen. The school opened in 1923 and started playing varsity basketball in the 1929-30 season.
“(It’s) not the greatest feeling in the world sitting here today as we have the first two days we’ve been here, but I’m extremely proud of my locker room and the kids that put on those uniforms,” Tigers Coach James Schooler said.
The Jaguars will play Bowling Green in the finals at 2 p.m. Sunday. Either team would be a first-time champion, but Cooper would become the 13th team to win a state title in its first Sweet Sixteen appearance. It would be the first since University Heights did it in 1992.
We know we’ve got one more, we know we’ve got a big test — a humongous test — in front of us,” Sullivan said. “But tonight was special watching these guys just fight and scratch and claw.”