By BEN JOHNSON
Jay Herrin isn’t afraid to admit it. He’s aware of how things might have gone against Oklahoma Centennial last week without solid contributions off the bench.
“If it wouldn’t have been for our second team,” said Sequoyah’s coach, “we would have gotten ran out of the gym.”
Luckily for Herrin and Co. Sequoyah’s reserve core came up big when it needed to, leading the Class 3A No. 8 Indians to an area championship with a 71-65 victory over No. 1 Centennial in overtime.
In fact, Sequoyah’s T.J. Jones came off the bench and led the Indians with 20 points. But he wasn’t the only reserve making crucial plays down the stretch.
“Our leading scorer came off the bench, and we had big charges [taken] and defensive plays made by Elijah Tucker,” Herrin said. “Zach Parish was our main ball handler in the second half, and he’s not even the point guard. Those guys played really, really well.”
Solidifying Sequoyah’s first victory over a top-five team this year was reserve Quinton Johnston. The 5-foot-7 sophomore guard buried freebies at the foul line to hamper any chance Centennial had of coming back.
“Quinton Johnston made a bunch of free throws,” Herrin said. “Our second group can really give us what we need, whether it’s offense or defense. We just had to find the right combination.”
That was Herrin’s may objective early on this season: find a group of reserves that play well together.
“Last year, we started a lot of different lineups,” Herrin said. “...This year, we went in and said we were going to establish the best five to play together to start the game. Then there’s going to be the next five off the bench. That’s what the kids were basically jockeying for position for.”
As it turned out, Herrin’s settled on Ryan Helsley, Niko Hammer, Caisen Green Trinton Herron and B.J. Leach as his starting five. That meant, Johnston, Wyatt McClure, Mahli McNac, Parish, Jones and Tucker had to battle for minutes off the bench.
“They knew that’s how it was going to be, and they could accept their role and work to be the best player they could be coming off the bench,” Herrin said. “Coming off the bench is better for some of our guys. It helps them relax and they can see how the game is going and how defense is being played and what is successful on offense.”
While Herrin may play 10 to 12 players each game, his players knows they’ll get a suitable amount of playing time each contest.
“One thing that helps them is they know they’re going to play,” Herrin said. “There’s never going to be a game where we play five kids; we’re always going to play around 10 to 11 or 12 or as many as we can.”
All of those who had a hand in knocking off Centennial will now take an abundance of confidence into Sequoyah’s game against No. 5 Sperry in the Class 3A state tournament.
“Most of our kids right now are on the upswing,” said Herrin, whose team takes a 19-8 record into a matchup against the Pirates (23-4) at Yukon High School at 2 p.m. on Thursday.
“They feel pretty good about themselves individually and as a team, and that’s important. The mindset of a 16-, 17-, 18-year old kid can change in the drop of a hat, and keeping them happy and feeling good about themselves is a big part of this job.”
Another boost to Sequoyah’s psyche is the fact that the Indians are making their first trip to the state tournament for the first time since 2010.
“I’ve always wanted to make it to the Big House,” Helsley said. “I’m pretty excited.”
The Indians’ trip to the Oklahoma City area comes after Sequoyah failed to make it out of the regional tournament last season.
“Last year was very disappointing,” Herrin said. “We thought we were one of the better teams in the state, but we depended so much on the outside shot, and if we weren’t shooting well we were easier to beat.
“This year, we’re more dedicated to being more physical on offense. We’re going to the basket more, and our free throws are up almost 50 percent. And we’re shooting about half as many 3s this year.”
Against Sperry, the Indians will take on a team much like Stilwell — a team with a strong presence inside and plenty of guards who can shoot from the outside.
“The post presence would be similar to Stilwell,” said Herrin, whose club went 1-1 against Stilwell during the regular season. “That’d probably be a pretty good comparison.”
The man in the middle for Sperry will be Casey Cole, a 6-foot-6 junior forward. Around him will be capable-shooting guards in Javi Cazarez, Peyton, Pratt and Blake Teel.
“I know they’re physical and we’re going to have to match their physicalness,” Jones said. “We’re going to have to play their big post kid pretty good.”
Providing more analysis on Sperry, Herrin said, “Teel is as fast as anybody. They’re experienced in the state tournament, so they’ll have some experience on us. The thing that concerns you is they have about five to six kids who can shoot the 3. They’ll shoot more 3s than we will, and they’ll try to get up and down the court.”