LAKE CHARLES -- When you live in a town known for hard-working blue-collar folks who are used to scratching and clawing for everything they get, a late deficit in a state championship game, well, that’s just not going to faze you much.
It sure didn’t unravel Walker on March 10in the Class 5A state championship game against Landry-Walker. Instead, it just seemed to steel the Wildcats’ resolve for one more final push that became the final page of a story that has been unfolding for 12 years.
Welcome to the top of the mountain, Walker.
The Wildcats overcame a seven-point deficit in the final 1:20 of regulation and powered past the Chargin’ Bucs in overtime for a 62-57 victory at Burton Coliseum.
It took grit, guile and teammates believing in each other to make some magic happen one more time on a night when they shot uncharacteristically bad. And it took a home-grown coach and his three lieutenants – two of them also Walker born and bred – doing all they could in timeouts to encourage a team out of its comfort zone.
Just one last episode that the Walker boys had to finish to get where they have wanted to be for so long.
“These guys trust each other and have for a long time,” Wildcats coach Anthony Schiro said after he steered his alma mater to what is believed to be the first boys team championship in any sport. “These guys have been together so long and have such an incredible bond. There is no better way to end it than the way we just did.”
How Walker managed to finish the final leg of its incredible journey was as impressive as the Wildcats’ dominant season-long march to get to the championship game.
Down 52-45 and seemingly on the verge of a sour end to an otherwise spectacular campaign, Walker forced six Landry-Walker turnovers in the final 1:20 to fuel a stunning 9-1 run, with freshman Brian Thomas connecting on 3-of-4 free throws to forge a 53-53 deadlock when the dust settled on regulation.
Jalen Cook and Darius Hampton came up with back-to-back steals after a Walker timeout, creating a 5-0 burst in 6 seconds on Cook’s three-point play and Hampton’s two fouls to set up Thomas’ heroics.
“We told each other the game wasn’t over and if we started doing what we can do, we’d be right back in the game,” said Hampton, one of the guards who helped the Cats crank up a full-court press that smothered Landry-Walker. “We kept playing hard and kept trusting each other – we did everything we know how to do.
“This feels so good. This is everything we wanted and everything we worked so hard for.”
Added Cook, the superstar sophomore and one of the other prongs of Walker’s press, “We had to keep trusting in each other to make plays and keep playing defense and keep playing hard. We weren’t going to give up.”
Nope. Not this far into a magical journey.
Championships aren’t meant to be earned easily, and Landry-Walker made darn sure that wasn’t the case for Walker. In fact, things looked awfully bleak for the Wildcats as the game headed toward the final minute of regulation.
Walker (33-4) had played solid basketball for the most part against arguably the most athletic team it had seen all season, except for one glaring area.
The Cats simply couldn’t put the ball through the net most of the night and that seemed like it was destined to be too big an obstacle to overcome. When Dalton Moore’s 3-pointer clanged off the rim with about 2 minutes to go, Walker had connected on 18 of 64 field-goal attempts – a recipe-for-disaster 28.1% shooting tough.
Besides just being cold as ice, the Wildcats also had to contend with the Bucs’ rangy frontcourt of Semaj Matthews and Jamond Vincent, who combined to block 9 shots and affect countless others.
“I really thought we were playing well, but we just couldn’t put the ball in the hole and Landry-Walker had a lot to do with it,” Walker coach Anthony Schiro said. “We were missing shots, but that had a lot do with how athletic and aggressive they were.
“Getting our guys to believe in the last couple of minutes was the challenge. I think maybe they started believing it was over.”
The five-point jolt energized the Cats, and even though they didn’t get off a final shot in the final seconds of regulation, there was little doubt which team had the edge once the extra session began.
Matthews actually gave the Bucs the lead in OT, 54-53 on a free throw. Soon after that, Perkins slammed home a Cook missed shot to give the Wildcats the lead 55-54 – their first since late in the third quarter – and they never looked back.
Cook finally got a shot to fall when he drove the lane and dropped in a floater. Perkins blocked a shot on the other end, triggering a signature Hampton finger roll in transition And after Jason Joseph bombed in a 3-pointer for Landry-Walker’s only made field goal in overtime, Thomas duplicated what he did in regulation and knocked down 3-of-4 free throws in the last 25.1 seconds to seal the deal.
“We were down and we just came out and said we were going to keep playing hard,” said Thomas, who was voted the Class 5A State Tournament MVP after he scored a game-high 20 points, snared 8 rebounds and came up with 5 steals.
“We just wanted to chip away at the lead and we found a way to tie it up and that was amazing. Once we got into overtime, we knew that gave us a chance to get control and once we did that, we went out and did what we were supposed to do.”
Down 62-57 after Thomas made the second of a pair of foul shots with 13.8 seconds to go, the Bucs pushed the ball up the court and hoisted a pair of desperate 3-pointers, and when the second settled into Thomas’s arms, time expired and a wild green-and-gold celebration began.
The euphoric Wildcats on the court ran toward the sideline as the Walker bench players dogpiled in one spot. Schiro jumped up and down and looked for assistant coaches to embrace, Jim Valvano-style. A large and boisterous Wildcat student section brought the volume in the arena to a roar.
Winning a championship will do that.
Winning one for the first time adds a little something extra.
Snatching victory back from the precipice when it seemed like defeat was imminent was just another theme to the storybook season.
“It’s surreal for us right now,” said Schiro, a 1996 Walker graduate. Assistants Eric Cook and Connor Locke are also WHS alums, and the third assistant, Donnie Goodson, has been by Schiro’s side since he returned to his alma mater in 2009.
“It’s amazing. You saw the atmosphere afterward. Our fans, our community, showed up in force. The student section was packed over there. Our side of the bleachers was packed. It’s just an amazing feeling to win that game and to bring that state championship, first in school history, back to Walker.
"There’s no way to put that into words and describe the feeling that gives you, especially for me being an alumni. All the credit goes to (the players) because they just worked hard and never gave up and just made the plays late.”
In the process, a core group of seven Walker seniors – many of whom have played together since they were 6 years old – cemented the legacy they have created the last three seasons: 79 wins and now the biggest prize of all. A legacy that Cook, Thomas and Co. will be in charge of carrying on.
“A championship,” Perkins said, a smile on his face that won’t likely fade any time soon. “It’s our first time doing this and it kind of doesn’t even feel real right now, to be honest with you. I really don’t know what to say about it.”
Really no more need for words. When you get to the top of the mountain after such a long climb, it’s OK to take some time to soak it all in.
WALKER 62, LANDRY-WALKER 57 (OT)
Walker 14 12 11 16 9 -- 62
Landry-Walker 6 17 16 14 4 -- 57
Walker (62) – Jalen Cook 5-21 6-7 16, Dalton Moore 1-6 0-0 2, Darius Hampton 4-9 4-6 12, Jalen Perkins 5-14 0-2 10, Josh Cook 0-1 0-0 0, Brian Thomas 6-16 8-11 20, Quaeshon Clark 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 22-68 18-26 62.
Landry-Walker (57) – Dywan Griffin 5-14 0-0 10, Sha’don Green 3-7 2-3 8, Jason Joseph 1-5 0-0 3, Breshaun Delpit 1-1 0-0 2, Semaj Matthews 4-7 3-6 11, Tory Cargo 5-12 0-0 13, Jamond Vincent 5-8 0-0 10. Totals 24-54 5-11 57.
3-point goals – Walker 0-11 (Ja. Cook 0-6, Moore 0-3, Perkins 0-2); Landry-Walker 4-19 (Cargo 3-9, Joseph 1-4, Griffin 0-2, Green 0-2, Matthews 0-2). Total fouls – Walker 13, Landry-Walker 17. Fouled out – Griffin, Green. Records: Walker 33-4, Landry-Walker 25-7.
Randy Rosetta is the Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News & Managing Editor of 4-5ALockerRoom.com
To reach him, call (225) 999.0667 or email Randy@LPN1989.com.
Follow on Twitter: @RandyRosetta