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BOYS BASKETBALL: No. 11 Inola claims regional title over sixth-ranked Madill

Feb. 26—CHECOTAH — Once the final buzzer sounded and the Longhorns gathered at half court to celebrate, Jackson Welch experienced a feeling he never had before.

It was a feeling that rectified past playoff failures and made all the trials he experienced with Inola in recent years worth the heartache. That is the feeling of being a regional champion.

The 6-foot-7 senior guard scored 7 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter, helping the 11th-ranked Longhorns secure a 49-37 upset of No. 6 Madill in the Class 4A Area IV Regional A championship Saturday night at Checotah. With the win, Inola moved to within one game of its first state tournament appearance since 1998 — the year it won the Class 3A championship.

"It's a confidence booster to be in the area finals this year — my last year," said Welch, who also finished with 4 rebounds. "... We're going to the area finals. We've got more games to go, so we need to stay humbled and stay focused."

The fourth period began and ended on Welch's terms.

Welch's quarter-opening layup sparked a 9-0 run during which he also hit a 3-pointer, pushing the Longhorns' lead to 43-27. The Wildcats answered with consecutive 3s from Greg Padgett and Brylan James to start an 8-2 surge, but it wasn't enough to come within single digits.

Not long after that, Welch ended the period the same way he started it — blowing by Madill defenders for a smooth layup.

"I just wanted to make sure we were ahead and that we were going to win this game," Welch said. "That was the main goal, to keep them out of it."

Welch wasn't alone in his heroics.

Aidan Clark, a 6-6 sophomore forward, tallied 10 of his 17 points in the second while also grabbing 4 rebounds, and Trevor Groff had a team-high 5 boards to go alongside 9 points. Groff and Welch combined for the final 4 points of the first half, with the former tying the score with a layup before the latter sent Inola into halftime with a 20-18 lead.

The Longhorns never trailed again after that, for that momentum carried into the second half as Caden Thompson buried a 3-pointer to open the third quarter. The Wildcats' 6-8 senior Ethan Wilkerson responded with a layup, but a Welch 3-pointer pushed the lead back to 6 points before Clark made it a 28-20 spread.

That little 5-0 spurt gave Inola a comfortable cushion, and Madill never came closer than 7 points for the remainder of the game.

"I can't applaud just one guy," Longhorns coach Clyde Barkley said. "They all played well on defense, and Jackson hit some big shots and Aidan hit some big shots. Everybody did something positive, so I think it's a huge team win."

Inola responded well to adversity early on, especially when faced with the dynamic offensive duo of James and Wilkerson.

Those two combined for all 11 of the Wildcats' first-period points, and a basket from JD Runyan to open the second gave them a 13-8 lead. The Longhorns rallied with an 8-0 run — which included 3 points from Groff, a Clark 3-pointer and a pair of freebies from Jaxon Marlin — to take a 16-13 edge, but Wilkerson embarked on a 5-0 surge to regain the advantage for Madill.

James paced the Wildcats with 15 points and a board, and Wilkerson added 12 points and 4 rebounds while Runyan co-led the team on the glass with 4 boards alongside 2 points.

Groff and Welch followed Wilkerson's outburst with their half-ending run, giving Inola a lead it wouldn't relinquish.

The Longhorns didn't surrender a turnover in the second or third quarters, committing only 6 total. They were also nearly perfect from the free-throw line, making 15 of 16 attempts.

"My kids were ready to play tonight, and I'm so proud of these guys," Barkley said. "It's been a long time since we've gotten to this level, being one game away from the state tournament. We've been there several times, but now we're at the door, and we're knocking on it right now. You've got two chances, and we're going to knock it down.

"Right now, I'm as happy as I could be."

Inola now turns its attention to No. 10 McLain, which carries a 13-game winning streak into the Class 4A Area IV championship that is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Stroud Route 66 Coliseum.

The Titans (23-3), who haven't been to the state tournament since 2018, defeated Fort Gibson 53-41 in the Regional C championship.

"I'm going to watch all (the film) I can," Barkley said. "I've got four days to do this."