GREENWOOD VILLAGE | For half of their contest at Cherry Creek Wednesday night, the Cherokee Trail boys basketball team looked like a Centennial League cellar dweller instead of championship contender.
But the second half was a different story, as the Cougars overwhelmed the Bruins on their way to a 66-59 victory that kept them tied with Eaglecrest atop the league standings with a showdown on the horizon.
Drick Bernstine poured in 17 of his 19 points in the second half and RJ Perry scored 14 of his 16 in the final two quarters — including a stretch of three straight 3-pointers in a pivotal fourth quarter stretch — and Cherokee Trail rallied from a deficit as large as 14 points to improve to 13-7 overall and 9-2 in the Centennial League.
“Urgency kicked in finally,” said coach Morgan Gregory, whose Cougars pay a visit to Eaglecrest at 7 p.m. Friday in a game that could decide the league title.
“No excuse, you just have to come ready to play; they took it to us in the first half and we stood around and let them do it,” he added, also noting the absence of double-digit scorer Jay Nelson. “Finally we got some energy towards the end of the third quarter and fourth quarter, everything clicked.”
Cherry Creek (11-9, 6-5) — which lost to Cherokee Trail by 14 points on Jan. 18 — did in fact take it to the Cougars, who looked their like their league title hopes were slipping away.
The Bruins came out hot from the field and exploited their size mismatch in the middle with 6-foot-7 Graham Pingree, building a nine-point advantage after two quarters.
Pingree had seven points and Sam Stoveall 10 in the first half for Cherry Creek, which took advantage of 10 Cherokee Trail turnovers in the second period. A 3-pointer by Taylor Shepard and Will Bower layup to open the third quarter quickly pushed the Bruins’ edge to 14 points at 37-23.
Bernstine scored just one basket and missed both of his free throw attempts in the first half, but finally got going in the third period with 10 points, including a basket to close the period and get the Cougars back to within nine.
Early in the final quarter, Perry — who was a hot shooter from the perimeter early in the season, but cool lately with just two 3-pointers in his last seven games — caught fire.
His first 3-pointer brought Cherokee Trail within eight at 49-41, then the Cougars forced a pair of Cherry Creek turnovers. Perry connected on another 3-pointer to make a it a five-point game when Cherokee Trail’s Tyler Larkin stole an inbounds pass and found Perry, who connected on his third triple in a 2-minute span to cut it to two.
Bernstine came up with a steal defensively and had breakaway, but Stoveall undercut him and sent him hard to the floor, where he was slow to get up. The University of Denver signee drained both free throws to forge a 49-49 tie, which Perry broke with a pullup jumper 30 seconds later.
“My teammates just kept finding me and I just wanted to come through,” said Perry, who made his most 3-pointers since hitting six in a loss to ThunderRidge on Dec. 8.
“I’ve had a couple of hot streaks this season, but this was definitely a big one coming down to the end,” he added.
A pair of Griffin Parr free throws tied the game at 51-51 with 3:30 remaining before Solomon Yon made 1-of-2 free throws to give Cherokee Trail a lead it would never relinquish.
The Cougars went up by as many as six in the final minutes, with the Bruins only getting as close as 62-59 with 11.3 seconds remaining. Two free throws from Larkin and an airball 3-point attempt from Stoveall sealed the result.
“We’ll enjoy this one for awhile, then get back to work,” Perry said.
Reach Sports Editor Courtney Oakes at [email protected] or 303-750-7555
CHEROKEE TRAIL 66, CHERRY CREEK 59
Score by quarters:
Cherokee Trail 13 10 15 28 — 66
Cherry Creek 15 17 15 12 — 59
CHEROKEE TRAIL (66)
RJ Perry 5 2-2 16, Evan White 2 0-0 5, Solomon Yon 0 1-4 1, Anthony Murray 3 3-3 9, Drick Bernstine 5 8-14 19, Tyler Larkin 3 3-4 9, Kennedy Littleton 1 0-0 3, Izaiah Lottie 2 0-0 4. Totals 21 17-27 66.
CHERRY CREEK (59)
Griffin Parr 3 3-4 9, Sam Stoveall 6 0-0 14, Taylor Shepard 1 0-0 3, Will Bower 4 2-2 10, Graham Pingree 6 3-5 15, Quentin Welu 1 0-1 2, Caesar Jones 2 1-1 6, Dylan Schneider 0 0-0 0. Totals 23 9-13 59.
3-point field goals — Cherokee Trail (7): RJ Perry 4, Drick Bernstine, Kennedy Littleton, Evan White; Cherry Creek (4): Sam Stoveall 2, Caesar Jones, Taylor Shepard. Total fouls — Cherokee Trail 14, Cherry Creek 17. Fouled out — None. Technical fouls — None.