By Kindsey Bernhard
LEXINGTON — Cooper needed a strong fourth quarter to get past Fern Creek, 51-44, in the semifinals of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA boys’ state basketball tournament on Saturday and advance to the championship game.
The Jaguars (31-4) will try to become the fourth 9th Region team to capture the boys’ state title when they take on top-ranked Bowling Green (35-2) in the Sweet 16 Championship at 2 p.m. Sunday at Rupp Arena. Bowling Green topped Scott 80-79 in the other semifinal contest.
Cooper outscored Fern Creek, 20-13, in the fourth quarter to win the semifinal game. Senior guard Sean McNeil scored nine of his game-high 22 points in that final period to help the Jags nail down the victory.
“I could see that they were very connected and they understood what we had to do,” Cooper coach Tim Sullivan said of his team’s mindset going into the fourth quarter. “We were being patient, but we were still staying aggressive, and I thought Sean really led that and did a nice job of adjusting to the way they were playing him.”
Fern Creek scored the first four points of the game, but McNeil answered right away with a 3-pointer. Those were the Jaguars’ only points until late in the first quarter and they trailed, 10-9, when the period ended.
Both teams continued to struggle on offense, but McNeil hit a 3-pointer to give Cooper a 21-20 halftime lead. At the break, Fern Creek was shooting 42 percent (8 of 19) from the field, which was only slightly better than Cooper’s 40 percent (8 of 20).
The Tigers started the second half with a 7-1 run, but Cooper senior forward Brayden Runion hit a 3-pointer to get the Jaguars back on track and the score was tied, 31-31, at the start of the fourth quarter.
Cooper scored the first 10 points of the final quarter. McNeil got it going by making a 3-pointer and layup. After Runion made a field goal and free throw, McNeil closed out the run with a pair of free throws that put his team ahead, 41-31, with 2:51 left on the clock.
“To kind of set the pace of this game or to set the tempo, we had to come out and punch first,” McNeil said. “Luckily, I got the ball at the right time. In the first half, I forced the ball a little too much, but in the second half I did a little better job at getting to the rim, taking smart shots and taking good shots.”
The score was tied six times and the lead changed seven times before the Jags’ fourth-quarter surge. “Tonight was special watching these guys fighting, scratching and clawing,” Sullivan said.
Cooper ended up shooting 42.9 percent (15 of 35) for the game. Twelve of the team’s 15 field goals were made by McNeil and Runion, who finished with 15 points. Fern Creek shot 43.9 percent (17 of 39). The Tigers’ only double-figure scorer was Anthony Wales with 13 points.
Cooper’s strong defensive performance continued. The Jags scored 14 points off 13 turnovers committed by Fern Creek. Cooper only turned the ball over six times.
“We knew they were going to come out pressing us, so we knew that we had to control ourselves, stay under control and not try to let them speed us up,” ” said Cooper senior Dante Hendrix.
Kindsey Bernhard is a journalism senior at the University of Kentucky. She is from Ft. Wright and played high school basketball at Notre Dame Academy.
COOPER 9 12 10 20 — 51
FERN CREEK 10 10 11 13 — 44
COOPER (31-4): Hendrix 1 4 6, Kunkel 0 4 4, Runion 5 4 15, McNeil 7 4 22, Walters 2 0 4. Totals: 15 16 51.
FERN CREEK (35-3): Wales 5 2 13, Price 4 0 8, Jones 4 0 8, Moore 2 2 6, Howard 1 0 3, Wickliffe 1 2 4, Hawkins 0 2 2. Totals: 17 8 44.
Three-pointers: C — McNeil 4, Runion. FC — Wales, Howard.