Greene County defense outlasts UMS

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 1, 2006

“We played great defense in the first half,” Greene County boys head coach Rodney Wesley said of his team’s play in the Regional Final against UMS-Wright Saturday.

But the Tigers still trailed the Bulldogs 19-14. Which meant that they had to play unbelievable defense in the second half. Fortunately for the large contingent of Greene County supporters in Mobile, they did just that.

The Tigers held UMS to no field goals and only one free throw in the third quarter, outscoring the tenth-ranked Bulldogs 14-1 in the period on their way to a 51-36 win. Senior forward Howard Crawford led the Tigers with 17 points and was named Tournament MVP.

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“The problem in the first half is that we didn’t score a lot of points,” Wesley said. “We scored 14 in the third quarter and (23) in the fourth quarter … Once we were able to score some points, that put some pressure on them and gave us even more energy on defense. To hold them to one third-quarter point, that’s what made it outstanding.”

If it wasn’t too surprising that the 4A defending champions were able to find more points in the second half, where some of those points came from certainly was. The go-ahead three-pointer was nailed by eight-grade reserve guard Neiko Hunter, who would go on to hit the quarter-capping jumper that gave the Tigers a 28-20 lead entering the fourth quarter.

“It wasn’t surprising that he hit those shots,” Wesley said. “We told him to take those shots if they were there. I think that took some of the pressure off the other guards. They all started shooting.”

Those points were critical on a day when Greene County’s 6-9 senior center Curtis Nickson scored only five points, two of them coming on an exclamation point dunk that capped the Tigers’ 25-2 run to start the second half and gave Greene County its biggest lead at 39-21. GCHS guards Michael Powell, with 11, and Robert Jones, with 10, each joined Crawford in double figures while Hunter finished with 7.

Rounding out the Greene County scoring was Charlie Hutton with 1 point.

By the end of their dominant second half, Greene County owned nearly every statistical advantage they could. The Tigers hit 20 free throws to UMS’s 7 (though they shot 41), out-rebounded the Bulldogs 38-26 (including 11 offensive rebounds), committed six fewer turnovers (14 to 8), and hit 41 percent of their field goal attempts to UMS’s 30 percent.

The Bulldogs shot 52 percent in the first half and scored six of the final seven points of the first half to take their 19-14 lead into the locker room, but shot only 4-of-26 for 15 percent in the second half as the Tigers turned up the defensive pressure.

Add it all up, and it equals the Tigers’ second straight Final Four appearance. Greene County will play Northeast Regional champion Saks Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in Birmingham. Wesley says that the Tigers’ championship experience should be a help, but it by no means guarantees the team its second title.

“We’re confident, but not cocky,” he says. “We know what we want to do and we feel good about our situation. If we play our type of ball, we’ll be fine.”

In addition to Crawford being named the Tournament MVP, Nickson was named to the All-Tournament team.