By BEN JOHNSON
YUKON — Sequoyah is living well at the present moment. Heck, even Elijah Tucker — not known as a long-range shooting assassin — perfected the art of burying a 3-pointer on Thursday afternoon.
“He’s made a few 3s throughout the season,” Sequoyah coach Jay Herrin said of his 6-foot-2 junior forward. “No, he’s not our main 3-point shooter, but he was open, and when you’re open, you’re supposed to shoot the ball. That’s what he did.”
Tucker’s trey from the right corner in the third quarter was one of nine Class 3A No. 8 Sequoyah made in its 73-65 beatdown of No. 5 Sperry in the opening round of the Class 3A state tournament at Yukon High School.
Playing in front of a spirited crowd of more than 1,000, the Indians (20-8) advanced to semifinals where they’ll take on No. 2 Okemah today at 10:30 a.m. at State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City.
Sequoyah — making its first appearance in the state tournament since 2010 — was able to reach the final four in 3A thanks to a game-changing run in the first quarter. The Indians, after falling behind 12-4 at the midway mark of the opening quarter, went on a blitzkrieg for 18 straight points before Sperry’s Logan Mullins dropped in a layup at the 6:22 mark of the second quarter.
“I just tried to remind them of what we were trying to do coming in,” said Herrin, whose team rallied from another sizable deficit after overcoming an 18-point hole to beat No. 1 Centennial in the Area I finals last week.
“We had a game plan, and I didn’t feel we were following it. I just tried to redirect their attention to what we, as a coaching staff, want our kids to do. Once they started doing those things, we started playing a little better.”
Sequoyah took its lead for good on T.J. Jones’ layup with 33 seconds left in the opening quarter. Jones scored 11 of his 14 points in the first half, while the Indians had Niko Hammer, B.J. Leach and Zach Parish all sitting on the bench with two fouls.
Ryan Helsley was Jones’ sidekick in the second quarter, tallying 10 of his game-high 18 points to help the Indians outscore Sperry 23-11 in the quarter.
Sperry (23-5) also fell behind because shots stopped falling. The Pirates — staring at a 40-26 deficit at the half — went 8 of 28 from the field, coupled with 10 turnovers, in the opening half.
“We just didn’t hit any shots early in the game,” said Sperry coach Lance Kight, whose team lost in first round of the state tournament for the second straight year. “We had to play catch-up all night long.”
That they did.
The Pirates — who were 22 of 64 from the field and 10 of 20 from the free-throw line in the game — put together a mini run and scored five unanswered points to open the third quarter to pull within 40-31. But Hammer came to life for the Indians and went on a 5-0 run himself to bump Sequoyah’s lead back up to 14.
“In the first half, we just weren’t able to control our emotions because we were so amped up,” Herrin said. “The second half I thought we did a better job [of that]. Niko is a prime example. He had a look in his eye like he wanted to fight after he got his second foul in the first half, so I just wanted him to calm down and make the plays that he can make.”
Hammer’s offensive explosion included a running jumper from free-throw line and a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
“I just knew I had to come out and play good,” said Hammer, a 5-10 guard. “As a senior, I knew I had to step up and be a leader. I just wanted to win really bad, so I came out tried really hard and did my best.”
It gave the Indians a jolt that would allow them to maintain their double-digit lead until Sperry’s Wyatt Brooks banked in a 3-pointer to pull the Pirates to within 52-44 at the end of third quarter.
Sequoyah, though, would reclaim its double-digit advantage in the fourth quarter, thanks in large to Casey Cole fouling out with 4:44 left in the game. To add insult to injury, Cole fouled out as Leach scored and converted an old-fashioned 3-point play to extend the Indians’ lead to 66-49.
“When Cole comes off the floor, we’re not the same team,” Kight said of losing his 6-6 junior forward who had 12 points and eight rebounds before heading to the bench for good. “It takes our size away. He picked up his fourth foul (in the third quarter), and we never could recover.”
With Cole out, Sperry’s only source of offense was Blake Teel hoisting up 3-pointers nearly halfway between the 3-point arc and the midcourt line. Needless to say, that was a failure for the Pirates, who were led by Javi Cazarez’s 13 points.
After both benches were emptied with a minute left, Sperry performed cosmetic work on the final score and turned a blowout into what appeared to be a tight ball game.
Regardless, Sequoyah improved to 13-9 in state tournament games and advanced to the semifinals — where they lost to Millwood in 2010.
Still, though, the Indians are a confident bunch after now having won five straight games.
“We’re 5-0 in the playoffs, and if you go 7-0 you bring home the gold ball,” Herrin said. “My kids are just trying to take it one step at a time, and I feel like anyone can win this tournament. If we’re playing well and shooting the ball well, we’re going to have a chance.”
Sequoyah 73, Sperry 65
Seq 17 23 12 21 -- 73
Spry 15 11 18 21 -- 65
Sequoyah (20-8): Ryan Helsley 18, T.J. Jones 14, Caisen Green 13, B.J. Leach 8, Niko Hammer 8, Trinton Herron 6, Elijah Tucker 3, Mahli McNac 3.
Sperry (23-5): Javi Cazarez 13, Casey Cole 12, Teel 9, Parker 9, Ketcherside 6, Brooks 6, Pratt 4, Mullins 4, Lind 2.