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Saks ends Tigers hopes for a repeat performance

The careers of Curtis Nickson and Howard Crawford will not end with a second 4A state championship.

The 6-9 center and 6-7 forward, future teammates for the UAB Blazers and stars of Greene County’s first championship run last March, combined for 21 points and 15 rebounds in the Tigers’ state semifinal Wednesday night. But it wasn’t enough as a last-gasp Crawford three to force overtime was no good and the Saks Wildcats came away with a 43-40 victory.

“It’s a tough loss,” Crawford said afterwards. “We played a game like the last one we played (a win over UMS-Wright in which the Tigers trailed at halftime). I guess it caught up to us.”

With Saks up 40-36 in the fourth quarter, Greene County’s trademark defense clamped down and forced back-to-back 10-second and five-second calls. The Tigers used that opportunity to tie the score, Robert Jones scoring after four straight offensive rebounds to tie the game at 40 with 4:44 to play.

But that would be Greene County’s final points of the ball game. More than a minute ticked away during the Tigers’ next possession, which resulted in a Crawford shot from close range that rolled off. Michael Powell stole the Wildcat pass upcourt and looked to have an uncontested layup, but that shot missed as well.

“Just making the steal was a great effort,” head coach Rodney Wesley said of the play. “On making the steal and hitting the basket he went 1-of-2. We needed it and didn’t get it. But I didn’t think the game was over at that point.”

Greene County would rue the missed opportunity as Darreyl Griffin scored to give Saks a 42-40 lead with 1:41 to play. The Tigers’ next two possessions resulted in a turnover and a missed shot by Jones, but Saks hit only 1-of-3 free throws in that time to give Greene the ball with 21 seconds and a chance to tie.

The Tigers were able to find Crawford in the corner for an open look at the tying shot, but it clanged off the rim. Powell tracked down the rebound and hurled up a wild shot at the buzzer that was also no good, and Saks advanced to Saturday’s championship.

“We worked to get him ‘downstream’ of Curtis,” Wesley said of the final play. “He popped out and took it. We had a chance, and that’s all you can ask.”

Saks led 11-8 at the end of one. Jones’s three-pointer at the 5:48 mark of the second quarter gave the Tigers their first lead at 14-13 and after a Saks three a three-pointer by eighth-grader Neiko Hunter retook the lead at 18-16.

But the Wildcats battled back, scoring five of the half’s final six points to take a 23-21 lead into the locker room. After Crawford’s first field goal tied the game to start the third, -to-back threes by Griffin and another by Korielle Beavers gave Saks its largest lead, 32-27, with 4:51 to play in the period.

The Tigers responded by turning up the defensive pressure, holding the Wildcats scoreless over the next 4 minutes and 34 seconds to take a 34-32 lead on a long Crawford three-pointer with 17 seconds left in the third. Beavers responded with a shot at the buzzer to tie the game going into the fourth quarter and two more Saks three-pointers built the 40-36 lead.

Following Crawford’s 11 and Nickson’s 10 for Greene County were Powell with 7, Jones and Hunter with 5 each, and Charlie Hutton with 2.

For the game, Saks shot 8-of-19 (42 percent) from three-point range, including 5-of-7 by Griffin for a game-high 23 points. Saks’ hot shooting outside contrasted sharply with Greene County’s performance from the free throw line, where the Tigers shot only 3-of-13 for 23 percent.

“That’s been our Achilles heel. We knew it. It’s just a mental thing,” Wesley said. “We missed opportunities. But to come back to the Final Four, we’ve had a good season. We lost. It happens.”