BENTON — Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and Grant Whitaker did that for the Tigers last night at Marshall County.
Sadly his 26 points and 10 rebounds came in a losing effort against the Marshals in the de facto District Championship game. With the 61-56 loss, the Tigers (21-5, 2-2) are not guaranteed a spot in the regional tournament, instead, they will have to play Calloway County for that chance.
It was a raucous environment in Marshall County after the Marshals (17-9, 3-0) honored long-time former head coach Howard Beth by naming the court after him between games. On top of that, both teams knew the stakes—a championship and a berth to the regional tournament hung in the balance.
“I told them it was going to be a hostile environment in Marshall, and we knew we had to come back and play a district tournament here so we wanted to have a good showing tonight,” Murray high head coach Curtis said. “We wanted to win the game and come away with the regular season (championship) and be able to be in the regional tournament, but it just didn’t happen like that tonight.”
With about 16 seconds left to play, the Tigers trailed by three points and had the ball under their own basket. That’s when the unthinkable happened. They were called for the Five-second throw-in violation. By not getting the ball in, the Tigers turned it over and the Marshals were able to extend the lead at the free-throw line to a five-point game.
Before that pivotal moment, came another that will have Curtis looking back on what could have been. With 50 seconds on the clock, Darius Duffy stepped to the free-throw line for a one-and-one and missed the front end. At the time, the Tigers were down by one.
Free throws were an issue for the Tigers down the stretch as Duffy missed another and grant Whitaker split a pair with under 10 seconds left.
“We’ve just got to make them. We practice pressure free throws all the time and we expect our guys to get up there and make them late in the game,” Curtis said. “At Calloway, we didn’t make them in the beginning, but we made them in the end. We missed some easy bunnies tonight around the rim and that could have put us up three or four points. The ball just didn’t go in the basket for us when we needed it to.”
Some of those ‘bunnies’ were shots that these players make 99 times out of 100 but missed. Still, despite the bad bounces and bad luck, the Tigers had their chance late thanks to the efforts of Whitaker. After being silenced against Calloway County, he showed up in a big way.
“He wanted to play well. After the Calloway game, he felt like he didn’t play so well, so tonight we knew we could exploit some things with him, and he came out and just made shots and made some plays for other guys on the team as well,” Curtis said.
One thing that hurt the Tigers for this game was an injury to Charqwan McCallister. After his 14-point fourth-quarter effort, he seemed to be headed into a new gear, but an injury kept him out of last night’s game. He said he felt his knee pop before they headed to the game and he was seen on crutches with his right knee wrapped.
“We were down a man tonight. Qwanie McCallister wasn’t in for us tonight so we were a little bit short on our guard rotation but Tommy came in and gave us good minutes tonight,” Curtis said. “Trey Boggess played some huge minutes for us down the stretch.”
With Qwanie out and Darius Duffy getting into early foul trouble, Murray High seemed even more short-handed.
“A fouls a foul. You’ve just got to be able to deal with them,” Curtis said.
As for the Marshals, their big-time player, Zion Harmon, came through with 15 points in the second half and did things to affect the game even when he didn’t have the ball in his hands.
“He’s a really good penetrator and he distributes it well and he has a really good midrange game,” Curtis said. “We just wanted to make it tough for him tonight and make him take some tough shots and hope he’d miss some.”
He did struggle from the three-point line going 0-4 but still found a way to score inside and carry the Marshals to a district championship behind his 21 points.
The Tigers were led by Whitaker’s double-double 26 points and 10 rebounds. They also got 10 points out of Charvelle McCallister and an 11 rebound night from Hunter Utley to go along with his six points. Duffy was in and out of the game and never found any rhythm. He shot just three times and finished with seven points and three rebounds.
As a team, the Tigers were 11-17 at the free-throw line and 5-19 from the three-point line, which has been an area of strength for them all season.
Now, the Tigers have three games left in the regular season and their goal is still attainable.
“We got some games to go before we get there (to the district tournament). We want to play Ballard tough on Saturday and get McCracken then finish up with Carlisle,” Curtis said. “Then, will start prepping for Calloway down the stretch. We know they’re going to be fired up. This is for the district championship to go to the region. We’ve been there two years in a row and we want to try to get back there for a third time.”
They will face Ballard Memorial at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday in Taylor Gymnasium.