Fernandez sends Wildcats to championship game
Wildcats’ depth, defense enough to hold off Pierce City, 54-49
Clinging to a 48-47 lead with 50 seconds left in the game, Verona senior Dominic Fernandez found the ball in his hands on the right wing beyond the arc.
The senior initially hesitated, then released a bomb that found the bottom of the net and gave the Wildcats a two-possession lead and an eventual 54-49 win.
Verona advanced to the Pierce City Invitational championship on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. against Purdy.
“We had to come in with a chip on our should and battle for everything,” Fernandez said about the semifinal win. “Coach [Brad Stewart] challenged us to step up and fight hard.”
As a junior, Fernandez was not known for his scoring ability. In fact, according to his coach, teams would often times not guard him on the perimeter.
In the win over the Eagles, the senior hit four triples to finish with 12 points.
“I tell you what is the difference with Dominic is this season,” Stewart said. “He puts in extra [shooting] work after every practice. I mean every practice. That is where he has gained that extra confidence to shoot.”
Stewart said his team needs to have Fernandez step up in order to help create a well-rounded attack. In its last two games, the Wildcats have received significantly improved production, both offensively and defensively, from Fernandez, Anthony Martinez, Austin Valdez and Chris Werner, depth that Verona sorely lacked last season.
The Wildcats pressured the Eagles in the first half to get easy turnovers and attacked the glass to force Pierce City’s leading scorer Hunter Tindell to the bench with foul trouble.
“That’s what we have to have to be a well-balanced team,” Stewart said. “Tonight, Pierce City had a plan and Dominic made that plan not work. It’s a team game and we are not in the championship without those four stepping up and doing their part.”
The Wildcats led 16-6 after one quarter and 26-16 at the intermission.
The Eagles made a run in the third quarter and cut the gap to four points at 35-31 to set the stage for a wild fourth quarter.
“Obviously, Coach [Matt] Street did a great job adjusting in the second half,” Stewart said. “I thought our zone and pressure were great. We made the plays when we had to.”
Caleb Hillhouse, Kolton Pinkly and Eddie Gutierrez kept the Eagles at bay with baskets early in the fourth quarter as Verona pushed the lead back out to 43-36 with six minute left in the game.
Tindell then caught fire and scored 8 straight on four consecutive trips down the floor for Pierce City, giving the Eagles a 44-43 edge with 4:13 left in regulation.
A deuce and a triple from Pinkly silenced the crowd and reestablished a 48-44 Wildcat lead with 2:07.
Donell Kleiboeker’s short jumper with 1:34 on the clock pulled the Eagles within 48-47 to set up Fernandez’s big shot.
“It means a lot,” Fernandez said about playing for a championship. “Last year, we were stuck with fifth place in this tournament, and this year, we are playing for a title.”
Stewart agreed it is a big deal for the Wildcats to make the title game.
“It is obviously huge that we are in the title game and we want to finish the deal,” Stewart said. “We have some talented basketball players. I think they are taking the challenge that this year they can lead us to individual and team results.
Scoring for Verona: Pinkly, 18; Gutierrez, 15; Fernandez, 12; Hillhouse, 9; and Valdez, 2.
Scoring for Pierce City: Tindell, 21; Donell Kleiboeker, 15; Jackson Kleiboeker, 6; Aaron Garner, 3; Trey Sagehorn and Hunter Hatfield, 2 each.