LAKE CHARLES -- For a few more nights, the dream season continues.
Because against a high-level opponent on Thursday night on arguably the biggest stage that Walker has ever stepped onto, it was a just another night at the office.
And because the Wildcats showed no sign whatsoever of the moment being bigger than they could handle, a new reality has emerged.
Walker will play for a state championship.
Taking on No. 1 seed Natchitoches Central, the Wildcats grabbed control from the opening minutes, created some breathing room heading into halftime and then uncorked a familiar unyielding barrage of energy on both ends of the court to blaze past the Chiefs 89-63 in the Class 5A State Tournament semifinals at Burton Coliseum.
No. 4 seed Walker (32-4) advanced to the state championship game for the first time in program history where it will collide with No. 3 seed Landry-Walker (25-6) at 8 p.m. Saturday. The Chargin’ Buccaneers edged Ouachita Parish 60-57 in the earlier semifinal.
“We’re happy to be where we’re at, but we’ve worked too hard to be satisfied,” Walker coach Anthony Schiro said. “Guys responded to that and stayed hungry.”
Indeed, one final step remains. Players who have known each other and played together since they were 6, 7, 8 years old get one more chance to add a huge final piece to the dream they have worked on for 12 years. The word ‘surreal’ was tossed out a few times.
But make no mistake: Walker left no doubt about how real its chances are to climb to the Class 5A mountaintop.
The senior-laden Wildcats – with two underclass superstars weighing in considerably – were at their deep and diverse best against the Chiefs (31-4). Jalen Perkins and Darius Hampton were the ringleaders on a dominant night when the Walker defense stole plenty of thunder.
Perkins scored 22 points, snatched 8 rebounds and blocked 5 shots, while Hampton added a season-best 21 points to eclipse 1,000 points for his career and grabbed 10 rebounds to help the Wildcats dominate the glass 44-27.
As impactful as those two were on offense, their influence in a stifling defensive effort was even bigger. Hampton drew the assignment of harassing Natchitoches star Brian White, who finished with 27 points but went long stretches without scoring because he simply couldn’t get the ball back in his hands. Perkins and freshman Brian Thomas swarmed the paint and essentially made it a no-fly zone for the Chiefs.
The final result was one that left Natchitoches Central grasping for answers, but respectful of the opponent that ended the Chiefs’ bid for a third state crow in the last five years.
“We’ve made a lot of trips here and we’ve played a lot of great teams and there’s no doubt in my mind that (Walker is) the best team we’ve played here,” NCHS coach Micah Coleman said. “They’re incredibly good.”
The Wildcats’ recipe for success was familiar, simple and well-executed from the very start.
Perkins cranked in 3-pointers on two of Walker’s first three possessions, the second giving the Cats a lead they never gave away.
“That was a big impact on the game,” Schiro said. “When Jalen Perkins comes out and hits shots, he’s a game-changer. That helped the rest of the guys really settle in.”
There was some evidence of nerves in the first period when Dalton Moore and Thomas missed shots from the lane that they normally make, creating a handful of missed opportunities that left the door open enough for the Chiefs to surge back from a 15-6 deficit and knot the score twice.
But NCHS never gained the upper hand, and it was White’s burst of 7 points in 1:13 that seemed to refocus the Wildcats’ defense. After that spurt, White connected on only one floor shot over the next nearly 10 minutes.
The main reason: Hampton smothered the 5-foot-8 playmaker as soon as he gave the ball up, which created problems that the Chiefs struggled to handle.
“We told Darius that we expected (White) was going to get the ball and bring it up the floor, but we knew he liked to give the ball up and run off screens and get the ball back to create shots,” Schiro said. “Once he got rid of it, we wanted to make him miserable and make it difficult for him to get the ball back.”
Coleman identified the scheme but there didn’t seem to be any solution. Not with the way Hampton blanketed White, with an occasional assist from lightning-quick reserve Quaeshon Clark.
“Without a doubt (Hampton) played super hard and disrupted out rhythm early,” Coleman said. “We had to work very hard to get the ball back into Brian’s hands within the rhythm of our offense.”
As the Chiefs wobbled, the Wildcats gained a head of steam.
They consistently broke the Natchitoches press and created easy looks, gradually shooting better as the game wore on. After the early yips, Walker shot 60% in the second quarter (6-for-10), 64.7% in the third (11-for-17) and 66.7% in the fourth (10-for-15). The Wildcats finished at 57.4% (35-for-61) and generated a whopping 58 points in the paint.
“When we get going and get off fast and play defense and make shots, it’s going to be hard for them to catch up,” said Jalen Cook, who scored 16 points and dealt out 3 of Walker’s 5 assists.
Relentless has been a key word for the Wildcats all season and they found their groove to close the second quarter and to open the third to grab complete command.
C.J. Carpenter hit a free throw to pull the Chiefs within 27-25 at the 3-minute juncture of the second frame, but Walker responded with a 6-0 burst. White pumped in a trey to end the half -- his first make in 7:13 -- with Walker up 33-28.
Ace Remo drove for a bucket to begin the third quarter, but the Wildcats started clicking and scored on six straight possessions to move to a double-digit lead for the first time. A turnover interrupted the run before Walker produced points on eight of its final 11 offensive trips.
“I was unpleasantly surprised with how well they shot the ball,” Coleman said, seeming a bit shell-shocked.
“You didn’t really see us execute well defensively, and that had a lot to do with how hard they defended us.”
It never got better for the Chiefs. That Wildcats’ relentlessness carried into the final period, including a signature Walker play when senior reserve Le Davis chased down a ball headed out of bounds, flipped a no-look pass over his shoulder and right into the hands of Hampton for a layup.
There were other hustle plays along the way. Twice Thomas zipped in and grabbed an offensive rebound, one becoming an assist to Perkins on a ball that was up for grabs with three Chief defenders nearby.
Those snapshots made for a pretty nice collection by the end of a historic night.
So now, for a few more days and one more night, the people of Walker have a chance to rally around a team full of players who have come to epitomize the city.
“It means everything, especially to our community and the school,” Hampton said. “They deserve it. This is really for them.”
- Walker turned the ball over only 8 times – 3 in the first half, 5 in the second. Cook was the only Wildcat who lost the ball more than once. The Chiefs produced only 5 points off of turnovers, compared to Walker’s 17 on 11 NCHS turnovers.
- Not only did the Natchitoches full-court press not create takeaways, it also led to easy shots in transition as the Wildcats logged 20 fast-break points.
- White managed to hit 9-of-18 field goals and 5-of-9 from 3-point range. No other NCHS player who took more than one attempt shot 50% or better. The rest of the Chiefs were a combined 12-for-40(30%).
- Rebounding was a major storyline in the second half when Walker snatched 25 to only 7 for Natchitoches. The Cats converted 14 offensive caroms into 22 second-chance points.
WALKER 89, NATCHITOCHES CENTRAL 63
Walker 19 14 27 29 -- 89
Natchitoches 17 11 18 17 -- 63
Walker (89) – Jalen Cook 6-16 1-5 16, Darius Hampton 9-10 3-5 21. Dalton Moore 2-8 2-2 6, Jalen Perkins 9-14 1-2 22, Josh Cook 1-3 0-0 2, Le Davis 1-1 0-0 2, Brian Thomas 6-8 3-5 15, Trent Montgomery 1-1 0-0 2, Quaeshon Clark 0-0 1-2 1, Jordan Hoggatt 0-0 0-0 0, Calvin Watson 0-0 0-0, Anthony Bell 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 35-61 15-23 89.
Natchitoches Central (63) – Brian White 9-18 4-5 27, Tony Preylo 1-4 0-0 2, Ace Remo 3-10 1-3 7, C.J. Carpenter 4-11 6-7 15, Desmond Vaughn 1-1 0-0 2, Trevon Solitaire 1-11 3-4 5, Richard Moody 0-1 0-0 0, Devin Robinson 0-0 0-0 0, Nathan Curtis 1-1 0-0 2, Casey Oden 0-0 0-0 0, Dale Newton 0-0 0-0 0, Zamauri Miller 0-0 0-0 0, Darius Young 0-0 0-0 0, Lever Toussain 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 21-58 14-19 63.
3-point goals – Walker 4-11 (Perkins 3-4, Ja. Cook 1-5, Moore 0-2); NCHS 7-19 (White 5-9, Toussain 1-1, Carpenter 1-4, Remo 0-1, Solitaire 0-4). Total fouls – Walker 15, NCHS 19. Records: Walker 32-4, NCHS 31-4. Up next: Class 5A state championship game – Walker vs. Landry-Walker, 8 p.m. Saturday at Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles.
Randy Rosetta is Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News.
You can reach him at (225) 999.0667 or Randy@LPN1989.com.
Follow on Twitter: @RandyRosetta | @LPN_Sports | @LPNews1898
Check out these Livingston Parish headlines from March 8, 2018!