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Fouls end exhilarating DHS season

It was too late.

Not for a season that surpassed even the head coach’s expectations. Not for an incredible year that no one ever could have predicted. Those things happened in Mobile a week ago.

It was just too late to put that small piece of icing on top of the miraculous year for the Demopolis High School Lady Tigers.

It was too late that, in the final 16 minutes of their championship game, DHS turned the ball over just five times. It was too late that star forward Gabrielle Essex could tack on 11 points in the second half, or that the Lady Tigers could establish any sort of run against the Deshler High School Lady Tigers. At one point in the second half, they cut Deshler’s lead to just nine points. Ultimately, however, Deshler stopped every run and repeated as Class 4A state champions.

“We stood around, we didn’t rebound and we didn’t attack the basket [in the first half],” DHS head coach Tony Pittman said after his team dropped the championship game to Deshler. “And while we were standing around, they were taking shots.”

And they — as in Deshler — kept chunking (41 times in the first half, to be exact) until the ball found its way through the rim at Jefferson County Civic Center

On the game, Deshler took 71 shots. Meanwhile, Demopolis High only shot 43 times in the entire game, finishing just 35 percent from the field.

Then again, it’s kind of hard to shoot the ball when you spend most of your time walking to the opponent’s free-throw line.

Essex, who helped lead the Lady Tigers to the championship game, had three fouls in the first half alone. She picked up a quick one early in the second half. And to magnify the foul situation, starters Shawnese Armstead and Janet Wood saw officials Chuck Willis, Bubba Owens and Bobby Stewart continuously blowing whistles and pointing rudely in their direction.

Armstead fouled out of the game. So did Wood. Essex finished the game with four fouls. And on the day, the Lady Tigers were whistled for 30 fouls — enough to foul out six entire players.

Deshler didn’t fare much better in the whistle category. They were called for 26 fouls.

“I thought our intensity and nerves may have had something to do with it,” Pittman said. “All those things played a big part in how we started the game.”

But being in Birmingham for the championship game — and all the nerves that surround such an experience — weren’t the only reasons DHS got off to a slow start.

“Deshler played a big part in this game,” Pittman said. “They were well coached. They were prepared for us, and they played an extremely good ball game.”

To be more specific, Blair Bowens and Courtnei Bowens played extremely good ball games for Deshler. Blair finished with 25 points, 16 rebounds and five steals (she also was named Class 4A MVP. Courtnei added 16 points and eight rebounds.

For the Demopolis High Lady Tigers, who finished their season 26-5, Essex finished with a team-high 16 points. She only scored five of those points in the first half because of foul trouble and was all but taken out of the game by silly fouls and a touch of adrenaline.

Armstead added 14 points and six rebounds before fouling out, while Katerria Johnson added seven points and seven rebounds before she, too, fouled out.

Though officials may have dominated Saturday morning’s game, Demopolis struggled in areas they haven’t struggled up to this point in this season. They went 0-for-7 from behind the 3-point line, and while they shot 66 percent from the free-throw line, converting 25-of-38 (not bad compared to earlier games in their tournament run), the only open shots DHS got from Deshler were from the line.

Turnovers, often the sign of a team full of excitement and jitters, may have separated Demopolis from Deshler most.

DHS turned the ball over 21 times, compared to Deshler’s 11 turnovers in the game. And while most high school teams have a knack for losing grip on the ball, it’s what happened after the turnovers that made the greatest impact on the game.

Deshler scored 24 points off of Demopolis High turnovers. DHS, on the other hand, scored just six points off Deshler turnovers.

Despite all the statistics and post-game analysis, though, one thing was clearly evident in the Lady Tigers’ quest for their program’s first state title: They achieved an enormous feat.

“With one senior, three sophomores and one junior, if you would have told me I would be sitting right here at the beginning of the season, I would have said you were crazy,” Pittman said. “These girls made this happen. They should be proud of themselves.”

And is this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for DHS? Don’t tell Pittman that.

“We’ll be back next year,” he said.