Tonight was Walton’s night.
The host Raiders won both games of their grudgematch against neighborhood rival Wheeler in front of a statewide audience on GPB.org and to the delight of the sold-out "Pit” on the campus of Walton High School.
The 89-78 win by the Walton boys was especially important, as they were able to upend the No. 2 Wildcats who had used them as nothing more than a speed bump for much of the past two decades.
“We beat Wheeler two years ago for the first time in about 20 years,” said Raiders head coach Joe Goydish. “(Tonight) was a big win because we knew we had to beat them to tie the region.”
And, indeed, the two teams are tied at the top of Region 5-5A with one loss, each to the other.
A Rico Overall three-pointer with 2:14 left seemingly sealed the deal for Walton, which led at that point 78-68. But the proud Wildcats scored six straight points in the blink of an eye to draw to within four points just seconds later. The pro-Walton crowd was now noticeably nervous.
But a Chevalen Pearson three-point play at the 1:30 mark pushed the Walton lead back to seven and all but clinched the win.
It was fitting that Overall and Pearson made two clutch baskets, as the pair combined for 28 points off the bench in an unexpected, but welcome, boost for the Raiders.
“They were huge,” said Goydish. “They did a great job coming off the bench. The two guys they replaced set the tempo and (Overall and Pearson) came in and took it to a different level.”
Walton trailed early 14-8 after the Wildcats ran off an 11-2 run. It looked then as if Wheeler might take the Raiders’ lunch money once again. But Goydish’s bunch fought back this time and took a 25-23 lead just under two minutes into the second quarter and would not trail again all night.
The Raiders stormed out of the gate to start the second half and built an eight-point lead by the end of the quarter. The final period was much of the same, as Walton extended their lead to 12 by the seven-minute mark.
From there, it was just a matter of holding the lead.
“We didn’t hold the ball, we just outscored them (down the stretch),” Goydish said of his team’s late-game balancing act. “And that’s a dangerous thing. (Wheeler) is so talented in the backcourt and we aren’t good at holding the ball.”
Star senior guards Lanerryl Johnson and Karl Cochran led the way for the Raiders, scoring 31 and 22 respectively. Johnson was especially majestic in transition, wowing the crowd with several acrobatic finishes and deft passes for easy baskets.
Score 44 member K.K. Simmons poured in 31 for Wheeler and was aided by Chris Longoria’s 14.
The girls game was equally enthralling as Walton overcame an early deficit to take control of the game late as Score 44 player Sarah Durdaller broke open a close game by scoring five straight points to give the Lady Raiders a 47-41 lead with just 1:46 left. Despite leading nearly the entire first half, Wheeler could not climb back into the game and fell 51-44.
Durdaller finished with 17 points and five blocked shots while Wheeler’s Kiana Griffin had 15 points to lead the Lady Cats.