MARIETTA — McEachern will carry an undefeated record into the new year, despite nearly two-third of its roster being underclassmen.
The Indians’ latest victory may have been their biggest win yet.
In the finals of the National bracket in the Tournament of Champions Holiday Classic at Wheeler, McEachern piled on 19 unanswered points to end the first half with a double-digit lead and held on to preserve a 77-67 victory over the Wildcats in their new arena.
“This win was great, but we’ve got to stay humble,” said sophomore forward Isaac Okoro, who led the Indians with 25 points. “We’re a physical team. We may be small, but we’re really physical.”
Freshman point guard Sharife Cooper, the younger brother of former McEachern girls star Te’a Cooper, was also in double figures with 18 points and added eight assists. Tre Peoples, one of two seniors on the team, scored 15 points, while junior Brandon Suggs added 10.
Wheeler appeared to be in control of the game after Darius Perry converted an end-to-end layup to give the Wildcats a 16-10 lead early in the second quarter.
But those turned out to be the last points scored by Wheeler until the second half. The Indians went into the locker room with both a 29-16 lead and momentum.
The marathon 19-0 run by McEachern to end the first half started with three consecutive layups by Peoples. Suggs then hit a 3-pointer to give McEachern the lead it never relinquished at 19-16. Then, Okoro converted a dunk off a steal, Suggs followed with another 3 and the remaining four points of the run came on the free-throw line, with Suggs and Okoro each making both their shots.
“When we came back to play our normal man-to-man defense, we did a great job in it,” McEachern coach Mike Thompson said. “We held (Wheeler) to one shot, and we were able to get out and run and score some easy baskets.”
Once Wheeler’s Jordan Usher started to find his shooting stroke to start the second half, the Wildcats fought back to get within six points in the first 3 minutes. But McEachern was able to keep its distance with a 7-0 run that consisted of four free throws by Cooper and a 3 by Okoro.
Okoro continued hitting layups and 3s in the third quarter as the lead grew to 47-31 late in the period. That was when Wheeler produced a run of its own with 11 unanswered points, starting late in the third and carrying over into the fourth.
Wheeler’s Austin Johnson scored five of his seven points during the run that ended with a Perry dunk to cut the Indians’ lead to five points at 47-42.
Thompson called timeout during Wheeler’s run, reminding his team how talented it is.
“When you have young kids, and somebody like (Wheeler) makes a run at you, sometimes you start doubting if you’re going to be able to do it or not,” Thompson said. “Our guys are very talented, but they’re young. Sometimes, they need to be reminded that they are very good.”
McEachern ended the run with back-to-back dunks by Okoro and Babatunde Akingbola and assumed control for the remainder of the game.
Eight different players scored for Wheeler, with Usher pouring in 17 of his 21 points in the second half. Perry was the only other player in double figures with 16, while E.J. Montgomery finished with eight before fouling out.