PRICE HILL, Ohio — Adam Kunkel buried a 3-pointer for the Cooper High School boys’ basketball team near the top of the key with 2:57 to play in in the fourth quarter Saturday evening, drawing a foul in the process and effectively ending a late Elder run that had the Panthers feeling a comeback.
But he paid for it with a hard foul that sent the junior guard tumbling backward onto the floor as the ball went through the net. And that was just what the Jaguars were there for. Cooper (3-1) withstood the physical and disciplined style of play Elder is known for and escaped The Pit with a 54-43 win over the Panthers at Elder (1-1). Their only loss in the first four games of the season came to Mason — another Ohio school — on Dec. 3.
“We come over here for a reason,” Cooper coach Tim Sullivan said. “Their staff does a phenomenal job every year and the tradition they have and how physical they play and the brand of basketball they play… our guys are not going to see that every day. So, we get to come over here and it teaches us a little bit.
"In the fourth quarter when they went on their run, we kind of ran and hid. But once we regrouped, our team showed us a lot. When adversity smacks us, how are we going to react? I thought we reacted pretty well.”
Elder went on a 7-0 run midway through the final period to cut a 41-30 lead to four points with just less than three minutes to play. Cooper regrouped and Kunkel was there with the big play and three of his game-high 20 points.
“I felt it coming, and I felt the time winding down,” Kunkel said. “I see the ball coming, and it was just time to knock it down.”
Kunkel missed the free throw, but later knocked down two other free throws to help seal the win. His 3-pointer was the only field goal in the fourth quarter for Cooper in the face of physical Elder defense.
“This gets us stronger, gets us going to the basket and not settling for jump shots,” Kunkel said. “This gets us going hard and it just gets us better all around.”
Senior forward Dashawn Mosley led Elder with 15 points and senior guard Shawn Sullivan added 10.
Senior guard Sean McNeil scored nine points for Cooper, and sophomore Blaine Walters added nine points and eight rebounds as the Jaguars passed a big early season test amid lofty expectations for this team.
“As a staff, we hold our guys to a high expectation, but there are a lot of people in our region and in our state that are holding our guys to a lot of expectations,” Sullivan said. “We’re a team that is trying to enjoy the process. Each day, we try to get a little bit better. That’s why we play this type of game. We come over and we play a team from the GCL where we know it’s physical. Our team is just going to continue to grow.”
The players have their own expectations.
“We love the hype, but we just try to block it out and just focus on one day at a time and enjoying the process,” McNeil said. “But the expectations for the team are obviously winning the 33rd (District), winning the 9th Region and then hopefully making a deep run in the state tournament.”
The Jaguars have plenty of games between now and the postseason, so they’re focused on getting better.
“Our short-term goals are to stay together as a team,” Kunkel said. “We can’t come apart on the court. We’ve just got to stay tough and grind out games.”
McNeil entered the game at Elder leading the Jaguars with 18.7 points per game and Kunkel was second with 12 points per game.
“They’re very unselfish guys, almost to a fault where I have to tell them we need them to go do some things,” Sullivan said. “They’re so happy for each other because they’re so happy when the other one does well.”
And they’re only the beginning of weapons the Jaguars have on the court.
“Guys like Adam and Sean are going to be talked about a lot,” Sullivan said. “But guys like Blaine Walters gets nine points and eight rebounds. We’re playing without Dante (Hendrix) today, so Braydon Runion steps up and plays his tail off.”
Cooper will visit Boone County rival Ryle Tuesday before heading to the King of the Bluegrass tournament at Fairdale High School in Louisville Dec. 16-20.