A layoff of almost three weeks eventually took its toll Wednesday night on Polk County’s boys basketball team.
But head coach Antoni Staley found a lot to like in the Wolverines’ performance before that.
Polk County kept pace with Cherokee for two and a half quarters before the Braves pulled away late to take an 81-60 victory in a non-conference matchup at Polk.
Neither side could pull away during a tight first half, and Polk County (2-8) trailed just 44-42 when Clark Phipps scored off a rebound with 2:55 left in the third quarter.
But Cherokee (5-3) fashioned an 11-3 run to end the third period, and Polk County got no closer than eight points the rest of the way. The Braves racked up 26 points in a fourth quarter that became an up-and-down track meet in the waning minutes.
“We got gassed, and they pulled away at the end,” Staley said. “All in all, after what we’ve been through, I’m not upset with that.
“The guys that came off the bench stepped up, and I thought our team attitude was good and what it needs to be.”
The Wolverines recevied a scare late in the game when senior guard Jaylon Bontrager had to be helped off the court with what appeared to be an ankle injury. No update on Bontrager’s status was available after the game.
While he played, Bontrager and Phipps teamed to trouble the Cherokee defense. The duo scored 16 of Polk’s 20 points in the second quarter, keeping the Wolverines close.
Cherokee edged ahead to a 25-17 lead at one point in the period, but a Bontrager 3-pointer started a run that pulled Polk within one, and the Wolverines stayed there until the Braves hit three late free throws for a 36-32 halftime lead.
Phipps scored 27 points to lead Polk, with Bontrager and Seth Hardin each adding 12 points. Jason Fox had three points, with Peyton Dill, Javantae Miller and Sedric Pickett each scoring two.
Tye Mintz had 22 points to lead Cherokee.
Polk County begins its Western Highlands Conference schedule on Friday, traveling to Owen. While Mountain Heritage and Avery have established themselves as the teams to beat, the rest of the conference race appears wide open, and Staley is optimistic about the Wolverines’ chances.
“I feel like (Wednesday’s game) is something that can get us going,” he said. “Seeing those guys come in and attacking like they did, that’s going to give us a lot of confidence.
“It’s a new start and a new year. I don’t like losing, but seeing those guys step means a lot for us.”