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Bell, Hale say defense key to rubber match

The two regular season meetings between the Demopolis and Livingston boys basketball teams were pivotal: the first showed that Demopolis was ready to be taken seriously in Area 5; the second showed that Livingston was too, and more, after their slow 2006 start.

But both of those games together fail to carry even half the importance of Friday’s rubber match, which pits the second-seeded Cougars against the third-seeded Tigers in the semifinals of the 4A Area 5 tournament. The winner will advance to the area title game and at least the 4A sub-regional round, while the loser’s season is finished.

“It can’t get any bigger,” says Demopolis coach Jesse Bell. “I told our guys, ‘If you win, you’re guaranteed two more games. If you lose, you stop playing.'”

Livingston coach George Hale said the importance of the game had his players ready to take the court mid-week.

“You can tell in practice they’re pretty well-motivated,” he says. “We’re anxious to get going.”

Demopolis took the teams’ Dec. 20 contest by a 40-37 score, but after Livingston routed the Tigers 72-48 in Livingston Jan. 20 and followed that victory up with one on the road over area champion Greene County, the Cougars enter Friday night’s game as the higher-seeded team.

Bell says to pull off the upset, his team will have to do an excellent job of defending Livingston’s top two scorers, center Roland Fitch and guard Jeremy Yates. The pair combined for 37 points against Demopolis in their last meeting.

“They have two great players: Yates and Fitch,” says Bell. “We’re going to try and contain both those guys, and force the other guys to score. If we can contain at least one of them, and not let those two touch the ball too many times, we’ll have a great chance.”

Easier said than done, especially since the rest of Livingston’s rotation features solid players like Montrell Farmer, Lamarcus Bell, James Bell, and Ronald James who are capable of both finding Fitch and Yates and scoring themselves. Livingston coach George Hale says his squad will have to play as a team to break down the stout Demopolis defense.

“We have to protect the ball and execute well,” he says. “If we can do that, we’ll come out victorious.”

When Demopolis has the ball, both coaches say one of the key match-ups will be how the Cougars deal with the Tigers’ pair of sophomore forwards, Shantrell Braxton and Casey Cantey. Braxton has come off of the Tiger “B” team to lead the team in scoring over the past two ball games while Cantey led Demopolis with 18 points in the Jan. 20 meeting.

“We have to play real good defense up front,” Hale says. “Last game we played a 3-2 zone that worked real well. We’ll play some of that, but we’ll also change our defenses up. We’re going to double up on the big guys and cut down the passing lanes. If we do that, it would be a big plus.”

On the flip side, Bell says getting the talented Cantey involved in the offense is critical.

“It’s very important to get him going,” he says. “He’s got to score in double figures for us to win. We want him to attack the basket.”

An important part of that, though, according to Bell, is solid play from his senior guard and one of the team’s better long-range shooters, Dontrell Miller.

“Another key to our offense is Dontrell,” he says. “We’ve got to make some outside shots to open the inside up.”

One thing that won’t have as much of an impact as in the regular season match-ups is the crowd. The tournament is being hosted by champion Greene County, with the DHS-LHS semifinal scheduled for a 6 p.m. tip.

“It’s going to put both of us on a neutral court,” sys Hale. “Neither will be able to depend on the crowd to motivate us. It’s going to come down to athletic talent.”

Bell says his team is ready to put its talent to use.

“You’ve got 48 teams, and 1 dream,” he says. “I told them, ‘You work all year to get to this point.’ Now it’s win, or go home.