PONCHATOULA – It’s been more than eight months since Walker’s boys basketball team walked off the floor at McNeese State’s Burton Coliseum with the school’s first Class 5A state championship.
For anyone expecting the program to take a possible dip, think again.
With a team that was together for a total of eight practices, Walker exhibited it can still play at a championship level with junior All-State guard Jalen Cook leading the way with a game-high 32 points in a dominating 80-57 season-opening road win Monday over Ponchatoula.
“Everybody’s thinking there’s going to be a drop off year, but it’s really not,” said Cook, who scored 16 points in each half. “We’re just ready to go.”
Cook was one of four players to score in double-figures for Walker, which shot a sizzling 63 percent (34 of 54) from the field.
Sophomore Brian Thomas scored 17, Trent Montgomery 16 and Keondre Brown 13 for the Wildcats (1-0), who never trailed.
“I told the guys that was a great first night,” Walker coach Anthony Schiro said. “They did a great job of sharing the basketball. Nobody tried to dominate the ball. We moved it and trusted our teammates offensively and defensively.
“Your shooting percentage is going to look pretty good when you’re getting a lot of easy ones around the basket and in the first half,” Schiro continued. “I thought we did a great job of shooting the ball, running our offense. We played fast but not out of control.”
Schiro was equally pleased with the play of his defense, which limited Ponchatoula (3-2) to 36 percent shooting (20 of 55) and forced the Green Wave into 18 turnovers.
Junior TJ Finley, a 6-foot-7 LSU football commitment, led Ponchatoula with 14 points.
“I thought we rotated well defensively,” Schiro said. “It was a good team effort, cutting off the ball and taking driving lanes away. It was a good first night back. I’ve been waiting on it for a while.”
Walker returned the 1-2 punch from last year’s state championship team with Cook and Thomas – the Class 5A title-game MVP – along with Montgomery and reserves Calvin Watson and Graham Smith.
The Wildcats also debuted Brown, a junior transfer from Denham Springs, and the results far outweighed a team playing in its first game of a season that was pushed back to accommodate the late finish of the football team.
“We have great athletes,” Schiro said. “The guys that left were great athletes and the ones coming behind are great athletes. We pushed the season back because they all play football. We were ready to get the season underway, and you can’t ask for a better first night.”
Said Cook, “There was a lot of excitement to come out in the first game and make a statement. We wanted to come out, make shots and play hard defense.”
Cook’s floater in the lane snapped an 8-8 tie – the third deadlock of the opening quarter – and Walker never trailed again.
The Wildcats finished the quarter on a 12-4 run with eight points from Cook for a 20-12 lead, but they were just getting warmed up.
After missing five of six shots to open the second quarter, Walker was perfect the remainder of the way – making nine consecutive shots from the floor – that provided the Wildcats with a double-digit lead for the last 19 minutes of play.
“They took a timeout in the second quarter (with Walker leading 34-20 with 2:01 to go) and I challenged our guys not to let the timeout take our momentum,” Schiro said. “I told them to buckle down on defense and get a few easy ones and see if we can extend our lead and it went from 14 to 18 in the last few minutes.”
The highlights during that torrid stretch came from Thomas, who had five steals, chasing down a loose ball that he poked away near the end line and passing to a trailing Montgomery for a slam dunk and 34-20 cushion.
Cook converted a baseline drive on a second-chance opportunity, Thomas drove the baseline and Montgomery finished the half with a three-point play after taking a feed from Cook that made it 41-23.
Walker shot 62 percent (18 of 29) in the first half.
“We’re all just playing for each other, playing hard on defense,” Cook said “Defense leads to easy buckets, easy layups and alleys (oops). When we play hard on defense, we get to have fun on offense.”
The fun didn’t stop there.
Walker made its opening five field goals of the third quarter – including the game’s first 3-pointer from Cook – that gave the Wildcats 14 straight made field goals over a nine-minute stretch that bridged the second and third quarters.
Thomas followed Cook’s 3-pointer with two straight lay-ins, Brown added a basket on a feed from Montgomery and Cook’s transition lay-in – courtesy of Montgomery’s steal – resulted in a commanding 52-26 lead with 4:38 showing in third quarter.
“Coming out of halftime, I told the guys not to lose the intensity level,” Schiro said. “I thought our guys did a good job of picking up the intensity on offense and defense. We shot the ball well in that stretch and extended our lead. They did what I asked them to do. They believed in what we’re doing and extended the lead the way I thought we could.”
Walker built its biggest lead (80-51) on Brown’s 3-pointer with 2:13 to play.
“I was very anxious coming off a first-ever state championship,” Cook said. “I’m in love with the feeling and just couldn’t wait. I was ready to get back it and chasing a state championship.”