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Sarasota Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 4 months ago

Cougars' clutch shot beats Riverview

Cardinal Mooney is 11-4 under first-year coach, Vince Cherry.
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Editor

As Cardinal Mooney High sophomore guard Connor Heald's shot went in, the air in Riverview High's gym was sucked out. 

Heald's three-pointer from the right side of the court with about six seconds remaining gave the Cougars a 71-70 lead in what appears to be a budding boys basketball rivalry. Riverview junior Jason Jackson put up a three-pointer of his own at the buzzer but it clanked out. The only sound remaining in the building came from Cougars players and fans rushing the floor. Mooney, a  Class 3A team, won over the Class 8A team with two potential NCAA Division I players (Jackson and freshman Jamier Jones) and a Division I football player (Jaron Glover). 

The Cougars (11-4) had almost beaten the Rams (11-4) twice, coming close to a victory on Dec. 30 in the Suncoast Classic. Jackson hit a big-time shot with six seconds remaining in that game to give the Rams a 59-58 win after Mooney led most of the way. Cougars first-year coach Vince Cherry, a Riverview alumnus, said the team learned from its mistakes in that game to get the win Tuesday. 

"We competed well in that first game but we made mistakes down the stretch that were just careless," Cherry said. "We were up four points and we would come down the floor and jack up threes, things like that. Tonight was about building off of that and being smarter. They are way more athletic than us — we can't dunk like them — but we made them sit out and defend a little bit more. We ran our stuff (on offense) and that helped us."

As much as one win can be a proof of concept for a team's identity, the win over Riverview gives Mooney fans a glimpse at what the Cougars can be. Mooney does not have a lot of height, but that doesn't matter much if the Cougars are executing. Four Mooney players (Heald, sophomore Dylan Higgins, sophomore Franklin Liriano and senior A.J. Russo) reached double-digit points against the Rams and sophomore Teddy Foster finished with nine points. The game showcased the team's outside shooting, but also a willingness to be patient and wait for the right opportunity, as well as a penchant for offensive rebounding. Mooney held the ball for several minutes to start the game, passing the ball around the perimeter and cleaning up on the boards before eventually hitting a three-pointer. And every time the Rams made a run, Mooney answered. 

"I think we lose this game last year," Cherry, an assistant coach on last year's team, said. "We have a lot of heart this year. I went in the locker room after the game and I was like, 'Damn, we have really grown up as a basketball team.' It comes from them buying in. You can see it during the games, I am passionate about these kids. They let me get on them the whole game. They don't complain about it and it rubs off on them. They see I have their back so they have my back. It's a special thing." 

Heald, who finished with 17 points, said going against each other in practice every day has made everyone on the team better. Since Mooney can go 10 players deep without a significant drop in play, that presents plenty of challenge. 

"We're great friends off the court but when we get on the court, we're enemies," Heald said. "We go at each other every day. It's a lot of fun."

Riverview was visibly disappointed with its play throughout the game. Multiple Rams crouched or laid on the court in the seconds following the final buzzer, watching the Cougars' celebration. It wasn't the outcome they wanted, but the Rams still showed an ability to come from behind when their athleticism is thrown into overdrive. Jackson finished with 20 points; Jamier Jones had 19, including two thunderous dunks from the left baseline. Glover also added 14 points. 

As crushing as the loss was for the Rams — and as euphoric as it was for the Cougars — both teams are in good shape for the postseason, which begins with district tournaments on Feb. 8. The Rams won't see many teams with Mooney's depth and tenacity and the Cougars won't see many, if any, teams with Riverview's physical gifts. Over the next three weeks, both programs will get the chance to solidify their in-game plans and grow into themselves. 

Still, the win meant a lot to Cherry, who said it was "no secret" that he wanted to best his former team in his first season. Cherry, an electric presence on the Cougars bench, believes the win can be a stepping stone to something even bigger. 

"The sky is the limit for us," Cherry said. "We put no expectations on this year. We're just going with it. We're all learning together and whatever happens, happens. It's working so far."

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I’m the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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