By BEN JOHNSON
COWETA — Tahlequah’s goal was to shut down both E.J. Golightly and Joey Sylvester. That objective never came to fruition.
Chickasha’s dynamic scoring pair combined for 38 points to lead the Class 5A No. 14 Fighting Chicks to a 56-53 victory in regional-tournament action at Coweta’s Tim Johnson Gymnasium on Friday night.
“They’re a little tougher than I thought they were,” Tahlequah coach Mike Leafgreen said. “We really had to key on them, but any little gap they had, they exposed it.”
Lain Wright had 21 points for Tahlequah, but the Tigers’ season was one-and-done for the fourth consecutive season.
“I hate it for our guys,” said Leafgreen, whose team’s season ends at 8-16. “They battled their tails off and worked hard, and you hate that for them. For Lain, I’ve said this before to his parents and the kids, he’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached. He’s also one of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached, day in and day out.”
Tahlequah had a chance to tie the game and send the contest into overtime but came up short after forcing a late Chickasha turnover. The Tigers stole the ball from Golightly with seven seconds left, and Tahlequah’s Kourtland McMillan missed a 3-point attempt a second later.
Tahlequah would end up with the ball out of bounds with three-tenths of a second left, but the Tigers’ inbounds play was foiled when Chickasha’s Datious Dufur batted the ball to the other end of the floor.
Aside from his late miscue, Golightly was nearly flawless for the Fighting Chicks (14-9). The 6-foot-2 senior guard scored 21 points on 7 of 16 shooting from the field. He was also 7 of 10 from the free-throw line.
Golightly did all of that while battling a top-notch defensive effort by Wright, according to Chickasha coach Bryan Merritt.
“(Wright) did a good job on E.J. Probably better than any kid has done on E.J. in our 22 or 23 games all year,” Merritt said. “I thought (Wright) played him real good and real tough.”
Also a thorn in the side for the Tigers was Sylvester. The 6-4 senior forward, in addition to grabbing six rebounds, collected 17 points on an 8-of-15 effort from the floor.
“Joey had a real good game,” Merritt said.
Golightly and Sylvester weren’t Tahlequah’s only problem, though. Datious Dufur did all of his scoring damage in the second and third quarters with 10 points. He also tied Tahlequah’s Jake Vader for the game-high rebounding honors with 14.
Together, Dufur, Golightly and Sylvester teamed up to crash the offensive glass in the second half, which never allowed the Tigers to reclaim the lead after losing it in the second quarter.
“Those first couple of minutes after halftime you want to get a little bit going,” Leafgreen said. “We just came out a little flat there and they hit a couple of shots. They’re tough.”
Going back and forth in the first half, Chickasha went ahead 31-28 at halftime. The Fighting Chicks enjoyed an advantage only because of Tahlequah’s inability to make free throws. The Tigers made only 7 of 17 attempts from the charity stripe in the opening half and finished the game 12 of 24.
“The goal is to get to (the free-throw line) 20 times, and we did a good job of getting there in the first half,” Leafgreen said. “Mentally, we just weren’t focused enough to hit them.”
Yet, it was Will Carlile’s ability to make three free throws — after being fouled on a 3-point attempt — that kept Tahlequah within striking distance late in the game. Carlile cut Chickasha’s lead to 51-48, allowing the Tigers an opportunity to steal the game late.
Tahlequah finished 20 of 43 from the field in the game, while Chickasha was 22 of 53. The Fighting Chicks, who did not make a single 3-pointer, also drained 12 of 19 free-throw attempts.
Looking ahead to next season, Tahlequah returns everyone except for Wright.
“We’ll definitely have a huge hole to fill, and we’ll have to play a little different,” Leafgreen said of next season without Wright. “What (Wright) brings to the table is he creates so well, offensively. We’ll have to do some things differently offensively. But we have a huge group of young guys are developing and getting stronger.”
Chickasha 56, Tahelquah 53
Tah 12 16 12 13 -- 56
Chi 15 16 11 14 -- 53
Tahlequah (8-16): Lain Wright 21, Jake Vader 9, Cunningham 8, Alberty 6, McMillan 5, Carlile 4.
Chickasha (14-9): E.J. Golightly 21, Joey Sylvester 17, Datious Dufur 10, Goombi 6, Stonecap 2.
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