Wheeler (18-4, 11-0) towered over Cherokee (14-8, 6-3), often finishing its drives down the court with dunks. On defense, the Wildcats would swat away the Warriors’ inbound passes and perimeter shots, while plucking rebounds out of the air.
Wheeler coach Doug Lipscomb said that part of his team’s strategy is using his big men in the most effective ways.
“We have some pretty good bigs, and we try to take advantage of that,” he said. “I think that we could have done a better job, but we are real happy that we won.”
Avery Patterson might not have been the tallest player on the court for Wheeler, but he was the most dynamic.
The Western Kentucky signee accounted for 26 points, including 16 in the third quarter, when the Wildcats essentially put the game away. Patterson connected for five 3-pointers and was 7-for-7 from the free-throw line.
Overall Wheeler made 17 of its 33 free-throw attempts — something Cherokee coach Roger Kvam said had a great impact on the game. The Warriors shot 80 percent from the line, but that was on just five attempts.
Kvam said the officials had too much influence over the outcome of the game.
“I thought the officiating hurt us,” he said. “Thirty-three free throws (attempted), to five. I didn’t think we had a fair shake by the officials. I’m proud of our kids for battling back, but to me, that was a game that needed strong, good officials who were making calls. We needed that and we didn’t get it. (Wheeler was) pressing and holding and grabbing on every cut and every screen. Our kids are outsized and they are fighting, and it was just poor officiating.”
Cherokee played Wheeler close in the first half. After the first quarter, the Wildcats led 14-10, and the teams matched each other point-for-point in the second.
At the break, Wheeler led 27-23, but all that changed in the third.
Not only did Patterson take over — scoring 12 points alone from beyond the arc — but Cherokee continued to rack up fouls as key Warrior players likes Jovan Morris and Jack Carroll were limited. Wheeler outscored Cherokee by 16 points in the third quarter alone and held a 20-point lead with 8 minutes to play.
Cherokee was able to cut the deficit to 13 points with just over 3 minutes to play, but after Morris, Carroll and Zach Kvam all fouled out of the game, Wheeler added to its lead.
Lipscomb said he can always count on Cherokee for a tough game.
“They play hard every time we play them,” he said. “They are well-coached. We have the utmost respect for coach Kvam and his program.”
Cherokee was led by Morris’ 15 points. Willie McClure scored 13, while Jeremiah Gill finished with 11.
Also scoring in double digits for the Wildcats were Elijah Staley (11) and Daniel Giddens (10).
Lipscomb said, at this point, every win is a big one. Wheeler has a 1½-game lead on Walton in the region standings, with a trip to face the Raiders on top for Friday.
In all, the Wildcats have three games left, including Saturday’s regular-season finale at Milton.
“They all count,” Lipscomb said. “We’ve got another big one (tonight) at Etowah.”