High school basketball games in early December typically don’t mean much.
That would have been a tough sell to the players for Covington Catholic and Cooper Wednesday night, which battled in front of an energized crowd at Cooper High School as part of the Mercy Health Tipoff Classic.
In the end Cooper, ranked second in the coaches’ preseason poll, took down No. 1 CovCath, 67-54, in the season-opener for both teams. The Jaguars jumped out to a double-digit halftime lead, and held on despite allowing the Colonels to shoot 22 free-throws in the second half.
“That was the big thing,” Cooper coach Tim Sullivan said. “Once we got the lead, the coaching staff and I were talking, and we were like, ‘Let’s see how we handle this.’ We didn’t want to just sit on the ball and act like we were going to walk away with the win.”
“We knew CovCath was going to fight and come back, so that was neat to see.”
Junior Sean McNeil led Cooper with 28 points. He was unstoppable in isolation situations as he finished the game 7-of-9 from the field and 10-of-11 at the free-throw line with eight rebounds and three assists.
McNeil said going against CovCath junior Cole VonHandorf, who was ranked first in the coaches’ preseason player rankings ahead of him, got him going.
“Coming in here with the big crowd and the big stage, I was just playing to impress,” McNeil said. “I’ve been looking forward to this matchup.
“I have nothing against Cole, he’s a great player and we’re good friends, but I haven’t been getting what I’m looking for (in terms of college interest) so I was really looking to prove myself, and I think I did tonight.”
“(VonHandorf) has a couple of Division I offers and he deserves it, but really I’d like a couple too, so that’s what I’m working for.”
Coming off consecutive Ninth Region titles, CovCath is replacing four of its top six contributors from last year, but also returned the Division I co-player of the year in VonHandorf, who finished with a team-high 15 points. However, Cooper junior Dante Hendrix made him work hard for it as he finished 4-of-23 from the field.
“Dante is a kid that if you tell him to guard Lebron James… he’s going to try to do do it,” Sullivan said.
“He’s going to figure out how to do it, and he’s going to attack it. He has great length, and he knows how to stay on the ground and not go for ball fakes.”
The game started at a breakneck pace with both teams trading buckets and only one foul being called through the entire first quarter.
Hendrix’s 3-pointer midway through the quarter gave the Jaguars an 8-6 lead.
Later, Sophomore Braydon Runion came off the bench to nail a three off an assist from McNeil to cap a 7-0 Cooper run over the final two minutes of the first quarter, giving the Jaguars a 17-10 lead.
McNeil scored 19 of his 28 in the first half, as he made four of his five field goal attempts, including 4-of-5 from 3-point range.
Senior center Will Heppler kept the Colonels in the game throughout the first 16 minutes. His and-one finish gave him 10 points and brought CovCath back within one possession, 23-20, midway through the second quarter.
However, McNeil immediately answered by hitting 3-pointers on three of the next four Cooper possessions to finish the half on a 12-4 run that pushed the Jaguars’ lead to 35-24 at intermission.
In addition to the hot shooting of McNeil, Cooper’s athletic guards used dribble penetration to create good looks on offense as the Jaguars shot 57.1 percent for the game, including a blistering 66.7 percent in the first half.
They also connected on 8-of-12 from 3-point rage.
At halftime, Cooper was 6-of-8 from beyond the arc, while CovCath was just 1-of-7.
“The great thing is, we have kids that can flat out shoot it,” Sullivan said.
“Now, will they play with confidence every night? I don’t know. But tonight, they played with confidence.”
McNeil’s younger brother, Chris, opened up the second half with a three on the right wing.
Then, a pair of free-throws from senior Nathan Brown extended the Jaguars’ lead to its largest point at 16. They led 53-38 after the third quarter.
The Colonels cut their deficit to 10, 62-52, with two minutes to play, but that’s as close as they got.
Cooper’s defense was smothering throughout, limiting CovCath’s offense to just 29 percent shooting for the game.
Covington Catholic – VonHandorf 4 6 15, Flood 4 4 12, Mayer 5 0 10, Heppler 4 1 10, Ruthsatz 1 1 4, Ziegelmeyer 0 3 3.
Cooper – S McNeil 7 10 28, C McNeil 3 2 9, Kunkel 2 5 9, Hendrix 3 1 8, Brown 2 1 5, Runion 1 0 3, Rohlman 1 0 3, Watson 1 0 2.
Cooper 1-0, CCH 0-1