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High school basketball: Team-first approach gives Cherokee Bluff a chance at special season
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Cherokee Bluff's Carlos Marlow takes on two defenders during the Bears' Region 8-4A basketball game Feb. 3 at Chestatee. Photo by Lee Heard For The Times

When Cherokee Bluff’s boys basketball team pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 75-61 road win at Chestatee last Friday, Josh Travis knew his team had reached an important milestone by wrapping up the Region 8-4A, Subregion A title.

However, he, his staff and his players had so much focus on closing out that milestone, they didn’t realize the win also put them on the precipice of another one.

With one more win, the Bears (17-7 overall, 10-4 in full region play) will match the most win in a season in the program’s brief history, matching the total of the 2019-20 team that finished 18-12 and reached the second round of the Class 3A state tournament.

They’ll have that chance when they close out the regular season Tuesday night at Madison County.

“This is the fifth year (of the program), and to be honest with you, … it’s the first I’ve even thought of that,” said Travis, who is in his second season as head coach at Cherokee Bluff after coaching two seasons at Chestatee and 16 seasons as an assistant at the University of North Georgia.

That Travis and the Bears were caught a little off guard by having such an accomplishment within reach may seem a bit surprising.

However, the reason it did also underscores a big reason why they’ve put themselves in this position in the first place.

While he expected his team to be more than competitive this season after a 12-14 campaign in 2021-22, Travis was like a lot of other observers who expected Cherokee Bluff’s progress to be a little more incremental.

“A lot of people thought it was going to be a rebuild,” Travis said. “A lot of people expected it to be, and maybe it’s a better team than a collection of talent. … It’s a special year, and in some way it was unexpected. It came about because our guys are doing things the right way, playing together and for each other.”

The Bears do have a nucleus of three players who provide a bulk of their scoring in senior guard Carlos Marlow (15.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.3 apg), sophomore forward Boston Kersh (14.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and junior guard Logan Holmes (12.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.0 apg).

But Travis probably has a good point about the overall team’s depth and chemistry being the driving force behind its success so far this season.

At least, Marlow, the only senior on the team who plays significant minutes, thinks so.

“I don’t think we played as much as a team last year,” said Marlow, a four-year letterwinner in the backcourt for the Bears. “We’ve played better as a team this year. … The chemistry has just gotten better. ... (The team is) way better than (it) was last year. We contribute (more to the overall team than) what we did last year.”

Travis is of the opinion that the chemistry that has boosted the Bears this season was born from a greater trust among each other.

And that trust, in turn, has helped each player relax and focus more on his individual role on the team.

“The majority of it is that they don’t go out there with a mindset of, ‘I have to score,’” Travis said. “They play the same way every possession, and we make mistakes. Some possessions are better than others, but they go out and play the game the way we intend to as a team, and they let it come to them.

“That’s what’s been fun. We’ve had other guys emerge. We’ve had some guys like Andy Quirarte, who … it wasn’t that long ago that he wasn’t getting to play that much. None of them are saying, ‘Hey, it’s my ball. Get out of the way. Let me go LeBron James and (isolate) and make plays.’ They create for each other, and when that’s the case and you have multiple people capable of scoring, it’s hard to guard.”

Quirarte, a freshmen who has averaged 4.4 points and has shot 46% from 3-point range since getting more minutes, junior Bryce Horton (5.5 ppg, 35% 3-point FG) and sophomore Kaden Thompson have all made important contributions off the bench.

Perhaps an even larger, and perhaps even more unsung, role has been filled by junior Tanaka Mukono and sophomore Tyler Underwood alongside Cherokee Bluff’s big three in the starting lineup.

Neither player averages much in scoring, with Underwood averaging 3.7 points and Mukono just 2.8 points per game.

However, both are important facilitators to help create room for the three scoring leaders to operate, while also contributing in other important areas of the game.

Mukono is perhaps the Bears’ toughest defender, leading the team in steals (2.8 spg) and deflections (3.3 dpg) and adding solid work on the glass (4.7 rpg)

“We made a handful of adjustments, and I was concerned it was too many of him,” Travis said of Mukono. “Tanaka was a guy who was going to have to make changes for that, and when I went back to watch the film, he executed every adjustment, made the right play on everything we did and … and he’s willing to play (hard).

“He’s our Dennis Rodman. Pulling down rebounds, defending, makes the tough plays. He’s not a very offensively-skilled player, but I think he’s pretty close to being an All-Region player just because of what he does away from the ball.”

Meanwhile Underwood is Cherokee Bluff’s best ball handler and distributor (team-best 2.7 apg), and adds solid defense, standing second only to Mukono in steals (2.3 spg) and deflection (2.5 dpg).

And Travis knows will need continued and consistent contributions from them and everyone else, no matter how large or small their roles.

While the Bears have the top seed from their subregion for next week’s Region 8-4A tournament, which they will begin by hosting Seckinger (15-8 heading into its regular season finale Tuesday) in a first-round game, gaining the coveted record-tying win and securing a spot in the Class 4A state tournament are far from guaranteed.

However, he has enough confidence in his players to keep his message to them fairly simple.

“That other side’s got a lot of good teams,” Travis said. “We … know (Seckinger is) a good team. If you get out of this region and make it to state, you’re in a position to make a (deep) run because I think this is the best region in the state.

“It’s certainly not something we’re going to take lightly. I’ve said this a few different ways to a few different people, but I think our mindset’s in the right place. As a coach, you’re a little bit scared because you give yourself too much credit that every little thing you do has impact. But you can certainly screw it up if you’re not careful. So more than anything, you just want to do no harm or have a positive impact, I guess. So, we’re in a good place. It’s just sustaining it.”

Likewise, Marlow says the biggest key for the Bears giving themselves the best chance to succeed down the stretch is keeping things relatively simple.

“I just feel like we (need to) just keep playing hard, just watching film and the team study of all the teams we’re about to play,” Marlow said.

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