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A ‘wild and wooly’ times at the Regional Tournament

It was, as expected, a wild and wooly week at the University of South Alabama’s Mitchell Center for the AHSAA’s Southwest Regionals. Yours truly was there for (almost) every bounce of the ball and saw enough All-Tournament awards and Tourney MVP awards handed out to fill more than one school trophy cabinet.

Duly inspired, I decided to hand out my own awards for the week. So here’s my picks for the best, brightest, and sometimes toughest of the Southwest Regionals:

BEST GAME: In 2004, Sumter County met Leeds in the Regionals and won by 50. In 2005, the Green Wave surprised the defending state champions by coming within a point of Sumter County in the Regional finals. This season they met in the Regional Semis and Leeds came out strong again, frustrating Wildcat star Larry Foster and causing problems with their full-court press, eventually taking a seven-point lead in the third quarter. But Sumter County is the state’s No. 1 3A team and two-time defending state champions for a reason, and that reason is the poise Foster and fellow senior Cordarro Law showed in leading a late Sumter surge that earned a 61-59 edge. Leeds wasn’t done, however, until one final last-second three-pointer clanged off the rim, and the Wildcats survived a championship-level challenge that may yet prove to be their biggest hurdle to a third straight state title.

TOUGHEST LOSSES: There’s nothing tougher to watch, as a basketball fan, than seeing a class of seniors who have worked and worked and worked for four years fall just short of reaching their goals and dreams.

But that’s how things ended Saturday for Demopolis’s Shawnese Armstead, Katerria Johnson, Kelli Johnson, and Krystal Walker in the Lady Tigers’ 48-36 loss to UMS-Wright. For a class that had already been to Birmingham twice and had their sights set on a possible championship run, falling in the Regional final may have been an even harder blow to take than their losses to Deshler in the 2004 state title game and 2005 state semifinal. If there’s any consolation for the Lady Tigers, it’s that they lost to an outstanding team: the well-coached Lady Bulldogs played far and away the best defense against Demopolis I saw this season, and had size and strength to bang inside that few Lady Tigers opponents had. Don’t be surprised if they challenge Deshler for the 4A title.

Things were likely just a hard for sunshine seniors Francesca Bates and Sherrena Carter. Bates, who has led Sunshine in scoring for several season, talked openly about the Lady Tigers “redeeming themselves” after losing by two points to upstart Pleasant Home in the 2005 Regional Final. Bates and Sunshine nearly did it, coming within a point of favored McIntosh (who upset defending champion Spring Garden in the state semifinals this morning) in the final minute before falling 51-44. Bates and the rest of the Lady Tigers should hold their heads up high for what they’ve accomplished, but after coming so close to Birmingham twice I know it’s easy for me to say.

MOST IN NEED OF CHEESE TO GO WITH HIS WHINE: Midfield boys’ coach Ron Sigler, who gave Sumter County credit for their 48-41 win over his team but also spent a good deal of his press conference complaining about the “tight” officiating that his team hadn’t seen before. First, of all the games I saw in Mobile, I stepped away from that one feeling better about the officiating than nearly any other one I covered. Second, Sigler has no one to blame but himself for the sluggish start that put his team in too deep a hole to climb out of. Rather than let them play the up-tempo press they had the rest of the season, the Patriots came out in a zone designed to slow the game down. That call didn’t work out too well: Sumter built a 12-point halftime lead they would never relinquish.

Color me unimpressed with the Midfield girls’ staff as well: after turning away a valiant run by the Sumter County girls and taking a 20-point fourth-quarter lead, Midfield continued to take quick shots and apply full-court pressure. Classy.

BEST RECOVERY: Whatever Greene County boys coach Rodney Wesley said to his team in the wake of their surprising home loss to Demopolis in the Area 5 championship, they were listening. First the Tigers went on the road to defeat No. 5 Escambia County in the Sub-regionals 56-54, then followed that up with two dominating performances in Mobile, winning 69-48 over Dallas County and 51-36 over the same UMS-Wright squad that eliminated Demopolis. Greene now looks, again, like a bona fide contender to repeat as 4A champions.

SWEETEST REVENGE: Full credit to the coaching staffs and members of both R.C. Hatch teams, who to a man said that despite the fact that their Regional Finals contests came against the same teams that eliminated them in the 2005 playoffs (Calera for the girls, Altamont for the boys) that payback was never a factor. That’s definitely the right attitude to take if you’re pursuing a state championship. But you can’t tell me that their victories weren’t just a little bit sweeter after the bitter taste Calera and Altamont left behind in 2005.

BEST PLAYERS: For the R. C. Hatch girls, as good as LaToria Paige and Ahjah Mitchell are down low and as big as guard Sheleta Banks came up in the Regional Final, the Lady Bobcats would have had no shot at defeating Calera without Vinecia Dudley.

The senior did what she’s done all her career, penetrating the lane at will to either score or dish. Her ballhandling skills are the primary reason why if Hatch can get to the fourth quarter with a lead, the game is all but over.

On the boys’ side, any one of a half-dozen candidates from Hatch, Sumter, and Greene County would be worth arguing. But none were more consistent or as pivotal as Greene County’s Howard Crawford. Crawford finished with 34 points in his two games on 12-of-20 (60 percent) shooting. When his shot wasn’t falling as reliably in the final against Wright, Crawford got to the line, hitting 9 of 11. As terrific a player as teammate (and future UAB teammate) Curtis Nickson is, in Mobile it was Crawford who powered the Tigers to Birmingham.