By Terry Boehmker
NKyTribune sports reporter
LEXINGTON — In the final seconds of Sunday’s state championship game, Cooper boys’ basketball coach Tim Sullivan replaced the team’s five starters with reserve players off the bench. Each time he made a switch, Sullivan gave the player leaving the game a huge hug to show his appreciation for taking the program to new heights this season.
Bowling Green defeated Cooper, 67-56, in the title game at Rupp Arena. Sullivan saw tears of disappointment in the eyes of each player that he hugged because they had their hearts set on winning the championship trophy in the team’s first-ever state tournament appearance.
“This group, led by our seniors, I’m in love with these guys so much,” Sullivan said. “When kids want to play like they do, play hard for us like that, it’s very, very special.”
Bowling Green (36-2) won its first state championship and ended the season on a 29-game winning streak. Head coach D.G. Sherrill knew his team needed to play well offensively against the Jaguars (31-5), who had one of the lowest defensive averages in the state all season.
“We told our guys, ‘You’ve got to keep scoring,'” Sherrill said. “You need to guard them as well as you can and rebound to limit their second-chance points, and just keep scoring. I thought we ran really good stuff. We were very focused offensively with a lot of communication — a very complete basketball game.”
Bowling Green took a 5-0 lead in the opening minutes of the game and stayed on top the rest of the way. The Purples were ahead, 45-33, going into the fourth quarter, but Cooper ran off seven straight points to make it 45-40 with 5:57 left on the clock.
After that run, however, the Jaguars went 2-for-8 from the field and committed two turnovers on their next 10 offensive possessions. That gave the Purples an opportunity to pull away once again. They clinched the victory with a 19-6 run to open up a 64-46 lead with 1:13 remaining.
“(Bowling Green) made big shots when they needed to,” coach Sullivan said. “We went on a run and they made shots. I’m just so daggone proud of (our) kids because they fought and didn’t quit. Even when we got down, they kept fighting and cut it back.”
Cooper senior guard Sean McNeil made six 3-point shots and scored a game-high 20 points in his final high school game. He was named to the all-tournament team along with two of his teammates — junior guard Adam Kunkel and senior guard Dante Hendrix — who scored a combined total of 22 points.
Bowling Green had four double-figure scorers led by eighth-grade guard Zion Harmon with 18 points and 6-foot-6 senior forward Terry Taylor with 16. The Purples had a 24-2 scoring advantage at the free throw line and shot 51.4 percent (18 of 35) from the field compared to Cooper’s 44.7 percent (21 of 47).
The state champions also won the battle on the boards, 29-17, and committed only seven turnovers. That’s why Cooper had no second-change points and only 13 points off turnovers.
“From offense to defense, they’re solid all around,” McNeil said of the Purples. “We knew it was going to be tough scoring on them and we knew it was going to be tough on the defensive end getting stops because they’re bigger and stronger than we are. But we battled for everything we could get. We fight hard every game, night in and night out, and I’m so proud of these guys. I’m going to miss it.”
Hendrix was the other senior in the Jaguars’ starting lineup this season. Kunkel, a double-figure scorer in three of the team’s four state tournament games, will be returning along with junior point guard Chris McNeil and junior forward Brayden Runion.
COOPER 11 10 12 23 — 56
BOWLING GREEN 16 14 15 22 — 67
COOPER (31-5): Hendrix 3 0 9, Kunkel 6 0 13, Runion 2 2 8, S. McNeil 7 0 20, Pittman 1 0 2, Walters 1 0 2, Shidler 1 0 2. Totals: 21 2 56.
BOWLING GREEN (36-2): K. Jones 4 2 11, Taylor 4 7 16, Wilson 4 1 11, Harmon 3 10 18, Dice 0 1 1, Thurman 1 0 3, T. Jones 2 2 6, Buchanan 0 1 1. Totals: 18 24 67.
Three-pointers: C — S. McNeil 6, Hendrix 3, Runion 2, Kunkel. BG — Wilson 2, Harmon 2, K. Jones, Taylor, Thurman.
STATE ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM
Bowling Green — Terry Taylor (MVP), Deangelo Wilson, Zion Harmon. Cooper — Sean McNeil, Adam Kunkel, Dante Hendrix. Fern Creek — Ahmed Price, Chad Moore. Scott — Jake Ohmer, Chad Ohmer. Ballard — Clivonte Patterson. Collins — Dominque Turner. Perry Central — Damon Tobler. Scott County — Cooper Robb.
Academic Scholarship ($1,000) — Vincent Dumlao (Scott)
Ultimate Teammate Award — Jake Ohmer (Scott)