WALKER – Walker High left New Orleans with a pair of losses in three games at the prestigious AllState Sugar Bowl National Prep Classic.
The Wildcats opened the first game of a very challenging three-game stretch this week with a four-point setback at defending Class 3A state champion Madison Prep Academy.
That thoroughly pushed Thursday’s home game with visiting Catholic High into another realm, a game the reigning Class 5A state champion Wildcats approached with a greater sense of urgency which the final score revealed.
Walker, which led by as many as 13 points in the second quarter, had to continually fend off a determined Catholic High effort down the stretch for a 65-59 victory at Glenn Ellis Gymnasium.
“This was a must-win game for us,” Walker guard Jalen Cook said. “We lost our last game and we wanted to play with a lot of intensity in front of the home crowd; just bring back the energy from last year. It’s midseason and we’ve got to play at our best every night.”
Walker (16-8) looks for a repeat of such a performance in Friday’s road nondistrict game against Live Oak at 7 p.m.
It’s the first time the two teams have met since Dec. 8 when the Wildcats defeated the Eagles 68-63 for the championship in the Livingston Parish Tournament.
“We played some good competition over the holiday break and lost some games,” Walker coach Anthony Schiro said. “We lost at Madison Prep which is a great team and we fought hard. We talked about how this was a defining week. We had three good teams and we responded from the loss the other night and won this one with some toughness.”
Nobody was tougher than Cook, who scored 19 of his game-high 30 points in the second half, especially down the stretch with Catholic (16-5) breathing down Walker’s neck.
The Bears, who went on a 17-7 run to erase the Wildcats’ 13-point lead, tied the game three times over a two-minute stretch of the fourth quarter only to be repelled each time by Cook, who scored 13 of his team’s 19 fourth-quarter points.
“It comes natural, but he puts in the effort to do those things,” Schiro said. “He’s been doing it for three years and I wish I could keep him forever. He did a great job of responding. He was cool under pressure. That’s the kind of player he is.”
Cook broke deadlocks of 51-51, 53-53 and finally at 56-56 with a field goal, three-point play and a 3-pointer, the latter of which came with 2:12 left in the game for a 59-56 lead.
“It’s just refusing to lose,” Cook said. “To go out there and play with a dog mentality. It’s a matter of getting a bucket and not letting the game get out of our reach.”
With 1:55 to go, Catholic had an opportunity to take the lead back, but only got as close as 59-57.
The Bears went 1-of-4 from the free throw line after a two-shot foul call followed by a technical against Walker’s Brian Thomas.
Walker responded with a steal when Trent Montgomery forced a turnover, which Cook picked up and passed ahead to a wide-open Thomas for a layup and 61-57 lead.
Montgomery answered a driving layup from Catholic’s Collin Holloway – only the Bears third field goal of the quarter – with a free throw to make it 62-59 with 1:08 to play.
The two teams exchanged turnovers when the Wildcats got a key defensive stand with Thomas, who finished with 15 points, blocking Holloway’s shot near the goal with 32 seconds left.
Cook later came up with a key steal where he was fouled and combined with Thomas in the last 16 seconds for three straight free throws to account for the final score.
“Every time they tied the game we came back with a quick answer,” said Schiro, whose team shot 57 percent (25 of 44) overall compared to Catholic’s 43 percent. “We did a lot of good things down the stretch to win the game.”
Thomas scored six points and Cook added four to fuel Walker’s 14-0 run in the second quarter that turned a one point first-quarter deficit into a 29-16 advantage with 3:17 to go before halftime.
Catholic, who called two timeouts to try and stop Walker’s surge, missed six straight shots and turned the ball over five times during the Wildcats’ run.
The Bears answered with an 8-0 run of their own with Kentrell Garnett, who scored 15 of his 18 points in the second half, capping the run with a 3-pointer to cut the Wildcats lead to 29-24.
Walker had an emphatic answer, though, getting consecutive slam dunks from Montgomery and Thomas that were 16 seconds apart. Cook then alertly spotted Montgomery ahead of the pack for a buzzer-beating layup and 35-24 halftime edge.
“We knew they had some players and a lot of good shooters,” Cook said. “We knew they would hit some shots and make a run. We knew we had to respond and do what championship teams do. Just find a way to win. Just play hard.”
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