By JUSTIN RAINS
KERENS — Cayuga boys basketball coach Greg Jenkins preaches that, in big games and big moments, big players have to make big plays.
In the biggest of moments Friday, Jenkins biggest player did just that.
University of Hartford-bound senior Preston Anderson scored 33 points, including an NBA-range 3 and four big free throws in the fourth quarter, as the fifth-ranked Wildcats held off No. 9 Kerens, 78-74, here Friday to clinch the District 18-A, Division I title.
“It’s just stepping up for the team,” Anderson said after the game. “Coach Jenkins said before the game that big players make big plays, so I just had to step up for the team.
After Cayuga had led all game, Kerens took the lead in the third quarter behind a 20-6 run led by Nate Betts. The sophomore star hit two free throws and a three-pointer to end the run, which gave Kerens a 56-52 lead late in the third quarter.
Cayuga held a one-point edge heading into the fourth quarter, and after Kerens took another lead at 61-60, Anderson made yet another play.
With Kerens inbounding the ball, Pat Boxie stole it and fed Anderson, who threw down a dunk to make it 62-61 Cayuga.
But, Betts answered back with a three of his own to give Kerens a two-point lead, which Cayuga’s Deon Shofner quickly erased with a sky hook in the lane to tie the game at 64.
On Cayuga’s next possession, Anderson hit that long three to make it 67-64, but Kerens didn’t stay down for long.
Tobyus Thomas drove the lane, made a lay-up and was fouled with just under three minutes to play. He made the ensuing foul shot to tie the game at 69, but Cayuga’s Hunter Jenkins, in only his second game back from injury, hit a big three — his sixth of the night — to give Cayuga a three-point lead once again at 72-69.
“We talk about roles a lot, and my role is to make shots,” Hunter Jenkins said. “So I just came in and executed my role, made shots and helped the team.”
Cayuga then got another steal as Kerens tried to bring the ball up the court, and once again Anderson was involved.
This time, the big senior found fellow senior Shofner for a thundering alley-oop dunk that gave Cayuga a five-point lead with 1:35 left.
Thomas immediately answered for Kerens with a jumper to cut the lead back to three at 74-71, and Kerens got back to within one with 1:05 left after a steal and a lay-up from Thomas thanks to some crisp Bobcat passing on the fast break.
That, however, was as far as the comeback came.
Anderson stole a pass with 44 seconds left and got fouled driving to the basket, making both free throws to extend the lead back to three at 76-73, but Kerens then made its own trip to the line, making one to cut the lead to 76-74.
On Cayuga’s next possession, Chandler Rigdon missed the front-end of a one-and-one opportunity, and Kerens had the ball with 30 seconds left, down by two.
Thomas earned a trip to foul line, but the senior missed both, and was then assessed a technical foul for being demonstrative going down the court after the misses.
Anderson made both of those foul shots with eight seconds left, and that put things away for good.
“Everybody is going to talk about his offense tonight, but he played great defense tonight,” Greg Jenkins said of his star. “Tonight, he bought in. The scoreboard’s not going to say it, but I thought he had a (heck) of a game.”
Greg Jenkins praised both his team and Kerens, and talked about how well this would prepare the Wildcats for what they hope is a state tournament run in March.
“In the playoffs, you’re not going to get into a more hostile environment,” Greg Jenkins said. “This was perfect for us. We knew coming in that they were a (heck) of a basketball team. We knew it.”
Jenkins had 18 to go along with Anderson’s big night, and Cayuga also got 14 and six rebounds from Shofner in the win.
Betts led Kerens with 33 of his own along with six rebounds, while Thomas had 14.
Cayuga hosts Dawson at 6 p.m. Monday in the regular-season finale.
ELKHART 69, Central Heights 60
The Elkhart boys’ basketball team inched closer to a second-place seed out of District 19-2A Friday, traveling to Central Heights and earning a 69-60 win.
If the Elks can defeat Crockett at home Tuesday in the regular-season finale, they’ll clinch the No. 2 spot behind rival Westwood.
Brian Johnson hit six three-pointers en route to a team-high 21 points for Elkhart (15-11, 9-2), who also got 18 from Jacob Cheatham and 14 from Luke Hollingsworth.
Games Tuesday begin at 5 p.m.
CAYUGA 56, Italy 38
The Cayuga girls’ basketball team outscored Italy 34-11 in the first half, then held on for a 56-38 win in a playoff warm-up game Friday in Kerens.
Madison Spears had 23 points to lead the Ladycats, who take on Overton in the bi-district round of the playoffs Tuesday at Tyler Junior College. Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m.
Kylee Cross added nine points while Danielle Anderson had eight and nine boards for Cayuga in the win.