Polk men earn hard-fought win for WHC playoff spot

Published 11:13 am Thursday, February 12, 2015

Hendersonville's Carson Chet, left, and Jordan Strickland, right, try to separate Polk County's Jaylin Wilkins from the ball, but Watkins is not letting go. Polk defeated the Bearcats, 78-72, in this Feb. 10 barnburner. (Photo by Mark Schmerling)

Hendersonville’s Carson Chet, left, and Jordan Strickland, right, try to separate
Polk County’s Jaylin Wilkins from the ball, but Watkins is not letting go. Polk
defeated the Bearcats, 78-72, in this Feb. 10 barnburner. (Photo by Mark Schmerling)

After the last cheer settled down, following some of the most furiously-played 32 minutes of regular-season high school basketball possible, Polk County’s men’s varsity had earned a physically and emotionally-draining 78-72 win over visiting Hendersonville.

Both teams had clawed for a berth in the upcoming Western Highlands Conference playoffs.

“The number one key tonight,” remarked Wolverines’ Coach Josh McEntire, finally able to smile confidently, “we kept fighting.” As McEntire rotated players, “the next person who came in did their job. It was a hard, long fight, that’s sure,” he observed.

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Several factors proved key for Polk.

As McEntire noted, freshmen Dillon Overholt, Holden Owens and Arnie Twitty stepped solidly into the roles they’ll be filling over the next few seasons. Jamal Wheeler led everyone with 35 points.  Another game-saver was the Wolverines making 17 of 21 foul shots on the night, including a flurry near game’s end, when the Bearcats had every chance to take the lead.

Boisterous and supportive fan support in the bleachers probably helped the Wolverines’ cause.

That Hendersonville did not catch the Wolverines was due both to Polk’s ferocious defense, and to the Bearcats missing some key field goal and foul shots in the final minutes and seconds, along with enough rebounds going into Polk hands.

The Wolverines evened their conference record to 6-6, while the Bearcats fell to 4-8.

Avery County leads the WHC, but is a 1A school. Among 2A schools, Polk’s closest conference rivals are Mountain Heritage (7-5), Mitchell County (5-7) and Madison (5-7).

Following the opening tip-off, Polk scored nearly instantly, when Wheeler sank a two-pointer. After the Bearcats tied the score at four, Arnie Twitty added two points, with Wheeler following with two more to make it 8-4. Polk earned leads of 12-9, 17-14 and 19-14 before the first quarter ended at 21 apiece.

Early in the second period, Wheeler’s three-pointer put Polk ahead, 33-31, but Hendersonville scored 13 consecutive points, on the way to a 44-35 half-time lead. Defense on both sides was fierce.

After two periods, McEntire told his players they were down by just nine points, and that “’if we fight back, we’ll be back in the game.’”

Polk’s free-throw success was no accident. McEntire said that recent drills have included running, and then shooting from the stripe, and shooting, and more shooting.

“I’m very proud of these kids. We just hung in there, and kept fighting.”

During the second half, the Wolverines whittled away at the Bearcats’ lead. Wheeler’s driving layup cut the Bearcats’ lead to 50-43. Davis Derkach sank a two-point goal to close it to 52-47. Wheeler’s goal, accented by a resounding cheer, put Polk ahead, 53-52, though Hendersonville got a three-pointer to lead 55-53, after three. However, Polk outscored their guests, 18-9 in that period, and would do outscore the Bearcats, 25-17, in the final eight minutes.

If anyone in the gym felt neutral about the outcome, that feeling was short-lived, with each basket or blocked shot drawing cheers and bleacher-stomping from the respective side. Hendersonville cut the Polk lead to 74-72, when Mike Schmidt made one of two foul shots. When a teammate went 0-for-2 shortly after, Polk fans could sniff a win.

When Wheeler stepped to the foul line for a one-and-one opportunity, he made the first and the second, to up Polk’s lead to 76-72, with less than 20 seconds left in the game. His two-point goal with just under six seconds ended the scoring, and essentially ended Hendersonville’s hopes.

In addition to Wheeler’s 35 points, Jaylin Wilkins added nine, while Wes Mullis (who was hurt and then returned) and Overholt each put in eight. Jason Chupp scored a key bucket in the fourth quarter, to put the Wolverines up, 64-60.

Wednesday’s non-conference game (Feb. 11) at Brevard lacked the “fierce urgency of now,” but the Wolverines downed the Blue Devils, 57-54. Brevard had the early momentum, leading, 19-7 after the first quarter, and 34-19, at the half, but Polk, led by Wheeler’s 19 points, outscored their hosts, 16-7 and 22-13 in the final two periods, respectively.

Davs Derkach (10 points), Arnie Twitty (nine) Holden Owens (nine), Jason Chupp (seven) Jaylin Wilkins (two) and Dillon Overholt (one) rounded out the Wolverines’ scoring.