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High school basketball: Cherokee bluff boys, girls rise to the occasion for sweep of East Hall
East Hall's Jaylen Williams (10) goes in for a basket against Cherokee Bluff on Jan. 24, 2023 in Gainesville. Photo by Amanda Loggins For The Times

With both of East Hall’s varsity basketball teams having made major strides in the past month, the Cherokee Bluff boys and girls knew they would have a much tougher time in Tuesday’s rematch after scoring easy victories in the first meeting of the season in December.

Both the Bears and Lady Bears would need strong defensive adjustments in the second half, plus key spurts by their respective marquee players in the fourth quarter, to leave Valhalla with another sweep.

After battling foul trouble much of the first three quarters, Boston Kersh scored six of his 10 points in a 1:10 span early in the fourth quarter to give Cherokee Bluff’s boys some breathing room, and the Bears held off the host Vikings late rally to escape with a 52-50 win.

Earlier in the evening, freshman Claire Carlson netted half of her game-high 20 points in the final frame, and the Lady Bears dominated the paint and the boards to finally pull away for a 62-50 victory.

Cherokee Bluff boys coach Josh Travis knew his Bears (14-7, 7-4) would have a much tougher time than their 36-point romp last month.

“(East Hall has) had an amazing turnaround,” Travis said. “They’re really playing good. … We survived. They made (Valhalla) a tough place to play again.”

That point was driven home after East Hall (5-17, 2-10) outscored the Bears 21-8 in the second quarter to take a seemingly commanding 33-19 lead into halftime.

But after Chasen Jones hit 1 of 2 free throws 31 seconds into the third quarter to give East Hall its largest lead of the game at 34-19, Cherokee Bluff cranked their full-court press up a notch, limited the Vikings to just three more points the rest of the period.

Meanwhile, the offense helped facilitate that press with a 17-0 run over a 3:27 span, ignited by Kersh’s jump hook in the lane and ended by a 3-pointer from Logan Holmes to vault the Bears into a 36-34 lead with 3:39 left in the third quarter.

“We were trying to press in the first half,” Travis said. “But you’ve got to get (the ball) through the net (on the offensive end) to set it up. Once we finally were able to score a little bit, we were able to set up the press, but after that, our halfcourt defense was good when it got there, too. Defense is the moment that gets you the opportunity to make a run, and we were able to make a run.”

Cherokee Bluff still had plenty to do even after Tanaka Mukono’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer sent his team into the fourth quarter with a 40-37 lead, and Kersh’s six-point outburst early in the final frame keyed an 8-0 run that left the Bears with their largest lead at 50-41 following two Carlos Marlow free throws with 4:34 remaining.

East Hall slowly chipped away at the lead, with Jamarcus Harrison netting a conventional three-point play, a 3-pointer from the right corner and 1 of 2 free throws, and then feeding Chasen Jones for a layup with 49 seconds left to key a 9-2 run that cut the lead to just 52-50.

The Vikings then got one last shot when Jones pulled down a rebound of a missed shot at the shot clock buzzer with 10 seconds left, and Harrison brought the ball up before driving down the lane and pulling up for a jumper.

But the shot hit off the front iron, and Cooper Glover came down with the rebound as the buzzer sounded to allow Cherokee Bluff to secure the win.

Marlow and Bryce Horton, who came off the  bench to knock down four 3-pointers, each finished with 12 points to lead the Bears, while Boston had his 10 points and Mukono had team highs of eight rebounds and six steals.

Harrison finished with 13 points and five boards for East Hall, while Levi Holtzclaw (13 points) and C.J. Agborsangaya (12 points) combined for 23 points in the first half, but were held to just two in the second.

Jones also contributed six points and nine rebounds for the Vikings.

In the girls  game, Emma Reynolds and Ella Quirarte came out of the gate quickly to help Cherokee Bluff (12-8, 6-4) build as much as a nine-point lead twice in the first quarter before East Hall rallied from behind the 3-point arc to pull to within 20-18 by the quarter break.

But while the Lady Vikings (7-15, 4-8) were able to stay within striking distance by staying hot from long range, hitting 11 shots behind the arc on the evening, the Lady Bears managed to make life much more difficult for them in the paint and on the glass.

East Hall managed just six conventional two-point field goals on the night, and more importantly, Cherokee Bluff did a better job of cutting off penetration from Lady Vikings guards to set up open looks from the perimeter.

“The goal was to keep (East Hall) out of the middle,” Lady Bears coach Lindsay Justice said. “We didn’t do that as well in the first half, so we talked a lot about that at halftime and really emphasized keeping the ball out of the paint on the drives because that’s when defenses collapse and they’re able to kick out to the shooters. We did a better job of that in the second half.”

Still, the Lady Vikings were able to keep within striking distance early in the second half, with Amari Burce draining two of her team-best five 3-pointers on the night and Callie Dale adding one of her four in the third quarter to help cut a 49-40 deficit at the half down to just 44-40 with 1:10 left in the period.

But Cherokee Bluff responded, as Carlson knocked down a 3-pointer of her own, and reserve Audrey Graham added a jumper from the right baseline in the final 52 seconds to send the Lady Bears into the fourth quarter which a much more comfortable 49-40 lead.

And with the lead at just 53-47 following Maleah Harrison’s driving layup with 5:06 to play, Carlson got revved up, hitting 3-pointers on consecutive possessions and scoring in transition after a nifty outlet from Kaitlin Cook during a 1:31 span in the final four and a half minutes to make the Lady Bears’ lead insurmountable.

In addition to Carlson’s 20 points and four asissts, Cherokee Bluff also got double-figure scoring from Reynolds (17 points, 7 rebounds) and Quirarte (12 points), while Mia Williams, who pulled down a school record 24 rebounds in her first meeting with East Hall last month, finishing with 15 boards this time, and Cook chipping in eight rebounds and four assists.

Burce led the Lady Vikings with 15 points, while Dale added 12 and Harrison finished with 10 points, six rebounds and seven assists.

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