CREVE COEUR • Some early foul trouble on a couple key starters forced Whitfield boys basketball coach Mike Potsou to mix and match players throughout much of Friday night’s Class 3 District 4 championship.
But, Potsou had one constant presence on the floor. And, oh, what a presence it is.
Senior guard Torrence Watson, the St. Louis area’s leading scorer, eclipsed his already gaudy scoring total by two points, pouring in a game-high 33 points to lead the host Warriors to a 55-51 win over Hancock.
“I pretty much wanted to just keep the flow going and not try to be overaggressive, but also know that those guys that were out are some of our better scorers, so that was more weight on my shoulders,” said Watson, who will play at Mizzou this fall.
Top-seeded Whitfield (20-7), the No. 7 team in the STLhighschoolsports.com small-schools rankings, advances to the Class 3 sectionals for the third straight year. The Warriors were fourth in 2016 and followed that up with a runner-up finish last year.
“It wasn’t our cleanest game, but Hancock is well-coached and they battled,” Potsou said. “Our guys really just kept their composure and continued to stay focused on what we needed to do.”
The game was a rematch of last year’s district title game at Valley Park. The Warriors won that game by 29 points. This year’s game was nothing like that game, signaling a marked improvement for second-seeded Hancock (20-6), which got 15 points apiece from Jamel Warren and Siah Moultrie and 14 points from Sam Richardson.
“Last year, they didn’t probably play as well as they should have. I was at that game and I think nerves kind of showed through,” said Tigers coach Mitch Fusco, who returned to coach the team after a 10-year hiatus. “When I first came back and took this job, one of the things we wanted to do was strengthen the schedule and get our kids battle-tested, so that we were ready for a game like this.”
Hancock scored 10 of the final 12 points of the first quarter to enjoy a 15-9 advantage after one. A 3-pointer by Watson and a layup by one of the reserves, Dimitri Margelis, gave Whitfield an 18-17 lead at the 2:21 mark of the second quarter.
The Warriors would not trail again, although the Tigers didn’t make it easy for them.
After stretching the lead to as many as six, Whitfield led just 29-27 at the half. Hancock hit the first bucket of the second half to tie it, but could never surge in front.
Three different times in the third quarter, the Tigers got the deficit down to one point. Two more times in the fourth quarter, they got it down to two, including 53-51 with 14 seconds left in the game.
“We were right there where we wanted to be,” Fusco said. “We wanted to try to keep it low scoring. We thought if we could keep it close at the end of each quarter, we would just need one or two plays to go our way at the end of the game. We cut it to one, two. We could just never get that loose ball or never get a shot to fall.”
After a 16-point first half, Watson had a relatively tame second half from the field, converting just three of 11 attempts. But, he knocked down 11 straight free throws in the second half, including all six in the final 1:24 after he picked up his fourth foul.
“We tried everything on him,” Fusco said. “He’s such an elite level kid that we just had to make it tough and he came up with big play after big play. And down the stretch, he made his free throws, which was the difference.”
Watson’s two biggest free throws came with 11 seconds left to give the Warriors the four-point cushion they needed to survive the Tigers’ comeback attempt in the final seconds.
“He’s a special player,” Potsou said. “We needed to rely on him and go on him in order to get us back in this game. He’s been in position where he’s had to shoulder some responsibility. This is his senior year, so he understands the importance of playing his best at this time.”
In Wednesday’s 7:45 p.m. sectional game at Jefferson College, the Warriors will see a familiar foe in Park Hills Central (20-9). The Rebels have advanced to the sectional round for the fourth straight year. The last two they have been sent home with a loss at the hands of Whitfield.
“We’ve been really fortunate,” Potsou said. “The last two seasons, we’ve been to the final four. Some of these guys don’t understand anything different. They almost expect us to make this run and start turning things on in the playoffs, which is the confidence you want your players to have at this time of the year.”