WARREN CENTRAL, PURPLES TURN FOCUS TO 4TH REGION TOURNEY
Warren Central High School coach Will Unseld was beaming, watching his Dragons quietly celebrate their KHSAA 14th District Tournament championship.
The Dragons saw Bowling Green High School race to a 21-5 lead in the first quarter, but they recovered in a hurry.
Warren Central outscored the Purples by a 3-to-1 margin the rest of the way, dominating the game with an arsenal of pressing defenses in an impressive 68-42 victory over their crosstown rival.
The Dragons improved to 23-3 on the season and will learn of their quarterfinal opponent in the KHSAA’s 4th Regional tourney on Saturday morning in a draw at Warren East High School. Warren Central has won 11 straight games.
Bowling Green (24-6) lives to fight another day, too, and the Purples also will be playing in the 4th Region tussle at Western Kentucky University’s E.A. Diddle Arena.
There’s an excellent chance these longtime rivals will meet again this season, but BGHS senior guard Turner Buttry was taking nothing for granted after the decisive defeat.
“I don’t want to underestimate any other team in the region,” Buttry said. “A game like that makes you want to get back in the gym, get back to work.”
In the first half, senior forward Jaiden Lawrence kept the Dragons in the game almost by himself. He hit three 3-pointers in the first half and led a steady procession of WCHS players to the free-throw line, finishing with a game-high 22 points.
“(Bowling Green) came out red-hot.” Lawrence said, “but we just had to keep calm about it, lock down on defense, and start to execute on offense.”
That’s what the Dragons did, flipping the script after Bowling Green built its 16-point lead in the first quarter.
Unseld emphasized ball movement and shot selection, after the ominious first quarter, but the truth of it is that Warren Central took control on the defensive end of the floor.
“(Bowling Green is) a great basketball team,” Unseld said. “We’ve had a lot of tough battles over the years. We started moving the ball better, taking better shots, but more than anything, our kids guarded and rebounded.”
WCHS forwards Chappelle Whitney, Omari Glover and Damarion Walkup were all effective near the basket, while Bowling Green relied almost exclusively on its backcourt for its scoring punch.
Buttry led the Purples with 15 points while fellow guards Deuce Bailey and MJ Wardlow added 9 and 7, respectively.
“Our fast start was fool’s gold,” BGHS coach DG Sherrill said. “We started short-arming some shots, struggling to find any kind of rhythm … When we went off the ledge, we couldn’t get it back on track.”
Lawrence, the Dragons’ emotional leader, said he had a good shoot-around before the game, and when the ball went up, he found his range almost immediately. Lawrence’s 22 points led a balanced WCHS attack, as junior guard Izayiah Villafuerte added 11, while teammates Glover, Walkup and Whitney combined for 24 points between them.
“We just had to do a better job of working together,” Whitney said.
Buttry said the Purples might have been a little emotionally flat, two days after they knocked off the district’s third Top 10 team — the Greenwood Gators — with an 81-68 victory in the WCHS gym on Wednesday night.
“After the Greenwood game, everyone was telling us how great we were,” Buttry said. “We’re just happy we get another chance. From this point, one bad night, and there goes your season.”
The Dragons are hoping to make their first trip to Lexington’s Rupp Arena for the Sweet Sixteen since 2019, but two years ago, they defeated BGHS in the 4th Region championship game, only to watch their season came to a sudden halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This group might be the best I’ve ever had,” Unseld said. “Versatile, tough. All of the pieces, they fit together … Tonight was just our night, on our home floor. We know there’s gonna be some more tough games down the road.”