Thursday night’s contest at Jerry Dalton Gym started as an anomaly but ended with a seeming inevitability.
Natrona County took an 8-point lead into halftime over rival Kelly Walsh. Not only did the underdog Mustangs have the hype of a perfect season-opening weekend, they had the momentum of a Wilsk Jackson layup just before the buzzer to carry them into the break.
That’s what Kelly Walsh head coach Randy Roden told his team in the locker room. It’s strange considering the program’s history; Roden told his guys to create their own legacy in the second half. One individual to themselves and independent from the program’s six wins out of the last seven meetings with NC and unfettered from the reputation of two state championships in the past three years.
“We weren’t playing defense good, we weren’t running our offense right,” senior Isiah Wiggins said. “We were just out of it. Second half we just kicked it up and controlled the game pretty much until the end.”
Kelly Walsh took advantage of a 3-minute NC scoring drought to start the second half on a 9-0 run. The contest went back-and-forth from there until a key 3 from sophomore Tyler Pacheco gave KW a the lead for good midway through the fourth quarter. The Trojans defense held, they hit their free throws and walked out of enemy territory with a win for the seventh time out of the last eight games against NC.
“We made some great hustle defensive plays,” Pacheco said, “made a couple shots and that was it.”
Pacheco finished with 18 points for the Trojans, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter. He opened the final frame with an up-and-under reverse layup cutting through the defense to pull KW within one. Then came a timely 3 and five free throws down the stretch.
The youngster, along with classmate Caden Allaire, has been part of an uplifting youthful core to Kelly Walsh’s reinvention this week.
“He’s a spark for us,” Wiggins said of Pacheco. “His jumper, it’s hard to guard. I could drive to the hoop and just kick it out to him and he’ll hit it every time.”
Allaire had 15 points and Pacheco added 11 against East earlier in the week. Allaire added seven from the bench in Thursday’s win. They maintain intensity and energy for the Trojans’ lineup when they come off the bench. More than that, they can step into the spotlight. Trojans’ leading scorer Michael Bradley was blanketed by NC senior Cooper Quig all game, leaving the KW senior with just two points off free throws in the fourth quarter. So the youth elevated their game.
“It’s good to have people we rely on,” Wiggins said. “I’m surprised they’re fitting into the varsity level like this already at such a young age.”
Following a sour first weekend, Kelly Walsh has seemingly righted the ship. The win over East on Tuesday was a pivotal one early in the season and the comeback win on Thursday against its crosstown rival provided no shortage of confidence going into a long winter break.
Kelly Walsh doesn’t play again until Jan. 9 in a road game against Cheyenne Central — the team responsible for KW’s most-lopsided loss in recent memory (77-40). That’s their first game of the annual Taco John’s Invitational so there’s far more at stake than just a result in that contest, but the Trojans know they can’t let their current momentum fizzle out with the long break.
The season’s a long way from over and yet they can’t let the positives get away.
“We’ve been continuing to work on the things that we know work in games,” Pacheco said. “So we’re just working on correcting our craft.”
Added Wiggins: “We can’t get too high on ourselves. We’ve got to treat every team, every game like it’s our last.”
Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans