Coach Rodrick Rhodes’ Cordia Lions were looking for their second straight win Friday during their first true home game of the season, and in return got a huge game offensively from junior guard A.J. Tagaloa.
Senior Dondre Warren got the Lions started with a put back under the goal, putting Cordia up 2-0 early on, but it was Cordia’s defensive pressure that gave Leslie County the most trouble, keeping the Eagles scoreless well into the third minute of the game before freshman Blake Asher made two free throws at the 5:20 mark.
From there, the teams went back and forth, first with A.J. Tagaloa drilling a three pointer at the 4:30 mark just before Leslie County’s Arlin Couch scored a basket in return, bringing the score to 5-4.
Cordia maintained their defensive pressure, resulting in a few forced turnovers and steals. Leslie County would tie the game at seven with 2:40 left, but Tagaloa would again answer with a three-pointer. A layup from Warren extended the lead to 12-7, and the Lions would take a 14-11 lead to the second quarter.
The up-tempo game continued as the play got somewhat sloppy early on. Neither team scored in the second quarter until a Cordia free throw broke the ice at the 6:30 mark.
But like the first quarter, the two teams would ultimately continue to trade baskets for the remainder of the half. Dondre Warren scored down low at the 6:10 mark, but was quickly answered by a basket from Leslie County’s Brandon Bentley to whittle Cordia’s lead to 17-16.
Leslie County would briefly take the 18-17 lead after a couple free throws, but a quick layup by Warren, followed by another score seconds later off of a Leslie County turnover, quickly put Cordia back on top 21-18.
Cordia would go on a small run to end the half, sparked by a put back by Robby Rios, which was followed by a break-away dunk by Warren. The Lions would extend the lead to 10 points with 30 seconds left in the half, and after two Leslie County free throws Cordia took an eight-point lead into the locker room.
Coach Rhodes said their game plan from the outset was to up their defensive pressure and try to force turnovers and wear down the Eagles, whose size could have posed problems had the game been reduced to a half-court match-up.
“We wanted to the break them down, and we thought we could get to them with our pressure,” Rhodes said. “We thought they were big, and we thought our advantage with them would be our speed and our ability to turn them over.”
Leslie County was the first to score in the opening of the second half, bringing the score to 33-27 at the 7:06 mark. But offensively, the game would belong to Tagaloa, as he scored 20 of his game high 38 points in the second half.
Tagaloa scored the Lions’ first points in the third quarter at the 6:50 mark, giving Cordia a 35-27 lead, and later a three-pointer from eighth grader Austin Combs put the Lions up 40-29.
Leslie County continued to get shots up, but Cordia’s pressure was giving the Eagles problems. Each time the Eagles scored, Cordia would have an answer to maintain the lead, and it was usually a score from Tagaloa, who chipped in 12 points during the third quarter alone.
Tagaloa opened the fourth quarter with a layup, putting Cordia up 50-40 at the 7:10 mark. Another Tagaloa score would later extend Cordia’s lead to 54-42, and the Lions never really looked back, at one point extending their lead to 13 points before eventually going on to win by the final score of 68-52.
Though on offense the Lions were penetrating into the lane and knocking down shots, Rhodes gave credit to his team’s defense for giving his players those opportunities on the offensive end.
“I think the defense wore them down,” Rhodes said. “I really believe that, and I think that’s our style. We try to wear you down, and we hope our conditioning will kick in in the third and fourth quarters of the game.”
Overall, Cordia played a scrappy game, with several instances of the Lions’ players hitting the floor or diving for loose balls. Rhodes noted that he was happy with his players’ effort, and he expects them to improve as the season progresses.
“I thought we played hard,” he said. “I think we’ve got to get better at executing, and I think that will become better in time. This is the fourth game of the season; we’re a young team. We haven’t a had a lot of time to practice together, but overall I’m happy with the kids’ effort.”
Cordia improved to 3-1 on the season, their only loss so far coming on the road to Lexington Catholic, but the Lions will likely have their hands full in their next game when they travel to Hindman to take on the Knott Central Patriots on Dec. 11. The Patriots have returned much of last season’s team, and are looking to repeat as the 14th Region champs. The Patriots so far have won three straight road games, and will take on Cordia for their home opener.
“I have nothing but admiration for Knott County,” Rhodes said. “They’re well coached, they don’t beat themselves, and I think that they have the best player in the region in (Camron) Justice. We have to come to the game, and we can’t beat ourselves by missing free throws and turning the ball over.”
Cordia stats vs. Leslie County: A.J. Tagaloa: 38 points, 5 rebounds, 1 steal; Dondre Warren; 15 points, 15 rebounds, 5 steals, 2 blocks; A.J. Chisolm: 6 points, 1 rebound, 4 steals, 1 block; Robby Rios: 4 points, 3 rebounds; Austin Combs: 3 points, 3 rebounds; Zack Owens: 2 points; Justin Cornett: 3 rebounds, 1 block; Brian Jones: 1 rebound