Mineral Wells Index
By CLINT FOSTER
Basketball fans and families were in for a treat, Saturday afternoon, as they flocked from all around the 14-county surrounding area to the Mineral Wells High School Gym for the 25th annual Chicken Express All-Star Basketball Classic.
Both the girls' and boys' games – pitting the finest regional players on the high-school hardwood against each other in "East" and "West" teams – were filled with athletic plays and were decided in the final minute of competition.
In the girls' game, the East team rallied from a 46-38 halftime deficit to win 86-80, thanks to some late-game heroics from Santo forward Taylor Nemeth and Weatherford guard Faith Woodring.
After a fairly dominant first half from West squad – that included local stars such as the Regional Champion Santo Ladycats' point guard Breanna Raffaele and Mineral Wells' own Courtney Peña – the East girls clawed their way to a 72-72 tie late in the second half.
In need of a big play, Kelsey Laake of Jacksboro drained a three with 2:46 left in the game to put the East up for the first time.
As the clock dwindled to 1:30, Cleburne's Bria McCullough hit a shot to put the West within one, at 79-78, but, as she had so many times during Santo's run to the state tournament, it was Nemeth came through in the clutch for the East.
The Ladycat nailed a shot from just outside the key to give the East an 81-78 lead with about a minute left. After a made free throw for the East, Weatherford's Abbye Shearmire brought the West within two at the 23-second mark, but her Lady Roo teammate Woodring iced the game with two buckets from the charity stripe and a layup at the buzzer.
As the game's leading scorer with 20 points, Nemeth was named Most Valuable Player and collected a trophy to go along with the win and her participation medal.
"I thought I couldn't do it without my Santo team, but coming to play with these girls was an awesome opportunity and I'm so thankful," she said after the win. "I don't think anything could beat state, but this was up there. It was pretty cool playing with the best of the best."
For Nemeth, Saturday's win was to be the end of her basketball career. She said she plans to hang up her basketball shoes and attend South Plains College in Lubbock in the fall.
But for her Santo teammate, Raffaele, Mineral Wells High School was not the final stop on the hardwood. The All-State Tournament point guard still has one final game date in the Texas Girls Coaches Association All-Star game and hopes to continue playing at the next level, potentially at the University of Texas in Tyler.
However, she said playing in the Chicken Express classic was particularly special.
"It was kind of bittersweet, because I live in Mineral Wells," she said. "It was kind of nice playing in my backyard, especially with all these girls. I played against Carli Clifton from Windthorst in the playoffs for three years and it was nice to finally play with her.
"It was weird playing against my own teammate, (but) Taylor deserves every bit of (the MVP honors). When she's on fire, boy, you can't stop her. Her quick, turn-around jumper is so hard. She's worked hard all year long. I'm just extremely proud of her."
The game was especially bittersweet for Peña, who got to play the last game of her basketball career on her home court.
"I was just glad that I got to play my last game at home," she said. "It was just special. I wanted to cry, but I didn't."
Peña said she plans to attend Weatherford College in the fall.
Also representing Palo Pinto County were Graford point guard Sydney Wimberly and Gordon wing Tristen Johnson, both on the East.
Wimberly scored four points, including 4-for-6 on free throws, while Johnson scored 12, including 3-for-4 from the stripe, and nabbed two rebounds.
Much like the girls' game, the boys game saw the winning team rally from a sizable hole at halftime to win in a game that went into triple-digits to close out the day.
Down 64-47 at the half, it was the West boys that engineered a comeback en route to a thrilling 111-105 win that featured 12 double-digit scorers.
Earning MVP honors were two Parker County products in Peaster forward Ty Ballard for the East and Poolville guard Alex Rodriguez for the victorious West.
Ballard tied East teammate Caleb Spoon, of Breckenridge, as the game's leading scorer with 23 points. Ballard also grabbed six rebounds and posted two assists, a block and a steal.
Rodriguez scored 15 points in the winning effort – 13 of which came in the second half. He also had four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Shining brightest of the Palo Pinto County All-Stars was Santo post Zarmorris Cannon. The big 'Cat posted 10 points, including 2-for-2 on free throws, and eight boards for the West.
"It was awesome," Cannon said of playing as an All-Star. "It was a lot of fun with a great group of people. As soon as I went to practice, we felt like a family."
Cannon said he plans to continue his basketball career as a walk-on wherever he attends college.
His Wildcat teammate, Cooper Barling, played opposite of him for the first time on the East team.
"It would have been a lot easier if he was on my team," Barling joked of Cannon. "It was fun. It was good to go out and enjoy playing one last time before college."
Outside of intramural sports, Barling said his career on the hardwood is over. He plans to attend the University of Texas in Arlington.
Rounding out the Palo Pinto County natives was Graford Jackrabbit Dylan Hart. The 6-foot-4 forward posted 10 points – six from behind the arc – and two rebounds to end his high school playing days.
"I just came out here to have fun," he said. "It was definitely different. Most of the teams we played this year didn't have half the talent that these two teams did."
After helping his Jackrabbits make a run to the Regional Finals, Hart said his basketball days are likely behind him. He plans to attend Weatherford College, but said he still may go to some hoops tryouts with Graford head coach Ty Tabor before all is said and done.