Sumter boys back in B’ham

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 28, 2006

In the boys’ 3A Southwest Regional semifinals, Sumter County star senior Larry Foster struggled as the No. 1 Wildcats barely survived against Leeds. Foster decided their Regional Final against Midfield, however, was going to be a very different story.

“I wasn’t focused (against Leeds),” Foster said after the Midfield game. “But today I just concentrated. I looked at the rim all the way. Coach told me to keep shooting, so I did.”

The end result of that shooting was 20 big points and Tournament MVP honors for Foster, who led the Wildcats to their fourth straight Final Four appearance and eighth in 12 years with a 48-41 victory over the tenth-ranked Midfield Patriots.

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“They did what we asked them to do,” said Sumter County head coach Alonzo Sledge. “We had to get off to a good start and control the tempo. And we were able to hit those key free throws down the stretch.”

At halftime, it didn’t look like any key free throws would be needed. Midfield opened the game with an unusual packed-in zone defense (“We still haven’t figured out what they were in,” Sledge said afterwards) designed to slow the game down and force the Wildcats to take outside shots. The strategy backfired as Foster made three first-half three-pointers and went 5-of-12 from the field, scoring 16 of the Wildcats’ 23 first-half points as Sumter headed to the locker room with a commanding 12-point lead.

The Wildcat defense held the Patriots to 19 percent shooting in the first half, including 0-for-11 on three-point shots, and only four second quarter points. While the Sumter D loosened up somewhat in the third quarter (allowing 11 Midfield points) the Wildcat offense more than kept up, eventually extending the Sumter lead to 17 points, 36-19, on a Foster jumper with 18 seconds left in the quarter.

But Midfield’s Cleveland Jones completed a three-point play in the closing seconds of the period, and the Patriots used that momentum to surprise the Wildcats with a 14-4 run over the first five minutes of the fourth quarter that cut the lead to 40-36 with just over three minutes to play.

But just as Sumter’s poise down the stretch saved them in the two-point win over Leeds, so it once again proved the difference against Midfield. Senior Cordarro Law scored with 2:53 to play, and after a Foster steal scored again at the 2-minute mark to push the Wildcat lead back to eight, 44-36.

Law and Cordarrin Wilson each hit one of two free throws over the next 60 seconds, and when Foster found KeAndre Cunningham for a basket with 32 seconds remaining that made the lead 47-39, the large contingent of Sumter fans started celebrating yet another trip to Birmingham.

“Winning is a tradition at Sumter County,” Sledge said, “and we’ve pretty much instilled that into our players, and our fans as well.”

Although Foster did not even take a shot in the fourth quarter, his 20 points still led all scorers. He was joined on the Wildcat scoresheet by Law with 11 points, Cameron Ezell with 8, Cunningham with 4, Jeremy Brown and Wilson with 2, and Patrick Delaine with 1. Ezell led the Wildcats with 6 rebounds.

In addition to Foster’s tourney MVP honors, Law and Wilson were each also named to the Regionals All-Tournament team. The win improved the No. 1 Wildcats’ overall record to 27-1.

Midfield girls 52, Sumter County girls 29

To hang with the heavily favored Midfield Lady Patriots, the ASWA’s No. 3 3A girls’ team, Sumter head coach Alonzo Sledge knew that his team would have to stand strong in the face of Midfield’s relentless press. Unfortunately for the Lady Wildcats, they didn’t stand quite strong enough.

“I knew Midfield would press from the beginning of the game to the end. We knew the outcome would be determined by how many turnovers we had,” Sledge said after the game. “And we had a lot of turnovers.”

35 of them, in fact, which combined with a whopping 35 offensive rebounds for the taller Lady Patriots resulted in Midfield taking more than twice as many shots as Sumter, 76 to 35.

But for all of Midfield’s statistical dominance, the Lady Wildcats can take solace in the fact that the game was not the 48-16 runaway Midfield enjoyed in their semifinal against traditional power (and 3A No. 8) T.R. Miller. Sumter had nearly equaled T.R. Miller’s output against the Lady Patriots by halftime and surpassed it on a Tenesia Ruffin basket with 4:57 to play in the third quarter that cut what had been a 24-14 halftime lead to eight, 26-18.

And Sumter wasn’t done yet. After a Ruffin free throw, Crystal Brown connected on a short jump shot with 3:10 to play in the period that shortened the deficit to 27-21 and prompted Midfield head coach Reginald Ware to call timeout.

Unfortunately for the Lady Wildcats, the timeout did wonders for Midfield’s nerves as the favorites scored 11 of the final 12 points of the period to take a commanding 38-22 lead into the fourth. The lead only grew in the final quarter as Midfield outscored Sumter 14-7, but despite the loss Sledge remained proud of what his team had accomplished. Few fans would likely have expected the Lady Wildcats to become one of the state’s last eight remaining teams, an accomplishment only two Lady Wildcat teams have accomplished this decade.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge … They’re a good team,” Sledge said. “I talked with them this morning, and I told them, regardless of what happens, just don’t quit on me. Just don’t quit. Do that, and anything is possible.”

Ruffin finished the game with a double-double, recording 12 points and 11 rebounds. Brown, Porsha Johnson, and Rekina Crawford each finished with 4 points while Tiffany Love added 2.

The loss ended the Lady Wildcats’ season at 20-4 and concluded the careers of seniors Crawford, Ruffin, Love, Johnson, Quenisha McCoy, and Patricia Delaine.