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R.C. Hatch brings home championship

The names change, the faces change, and this season even the coach changed. But what hasn’t changed for the R.C. Hatch boys, over more than two decades, is winning championships.

The state’s most successful basketball program brought home another one Thursday night, erasing a 13-point deficit to win the 2A championship game 55-52 in overtime over Lanett. The title is the boys’ eighth and the schools’ ninth, but the first for first-year head coach Homer Davis, Jr.

“I just feel blessed to have this opportunity,” Davis said afterwards. “The kids could have folded at any time, but they kept fighting. That’s the Bobcat tradition. For the first time, we have seven seniors on our team and I’m very proud of them. I’ve coached them since junior high and we’ve stuck together all year.”

That sense of teamwork made all the difference for the Bobcats as the game came to its thrilling conclusion. Trailing 47-46 with less than a minute remaining in regulation, Hatch missed three consecutive shots on one possession-but claimed the rebound each time, eventually getting a putback from senior forward Phillip Johnson to take a 48-47 lead.

With 21 seconds to play, Lanett’s Julian McCoy missed a three-pointer. In the mad scramble for the rebound, Hatch sophomore Frankie Sullivan bumped McCoy into the backcourt, drawing his fifth foul. McCoy hit his first free throw but missed the second, and after Lorenzo Jones turned the ball over on Hatch’s next possession the Bobcats headed into overtime without their leading scorer and assist man.

“I’ve been an offensive machine, but my goal headed into this season was to be a defensive machine,” Sullivan said. “That’s what I was trying to be, and that’s why I fouled out … But coach pulled us together.”

Davis said that after Sullivan missed multiple games with a knee injury earlier in the season, his team wasn’t fazed by the prospect of playing overtime without him.

“That helped a lot,” he said. “Any time he’s been out, the other guys stepped up.”

That point was proven nearly three minutes into overtime, when senior forward Willie Coleman rebounded and scored after a Johnson miss, giving Hatch the first points of the extra period. Jones then hit the front end of a one-and-one to stretch the lead to three with 1:39 to play.

Lanett’s Deontra Marbury answered 15 seconds later to cut the lead back to one. The Panthers then caught a break when Antwon Ramsey was whistled for an intentional foul only for Hatch’s Eric Sullivan to miss both foul shots.

It was then junior center Calvin Pope made arguably the biggest play of the game. Caught in the corner, Johnson took a long jump shot with 40 seconds left which missed badly. But Pope alertly grabbed the rebound and was fouled, making both free throws to put the Panthers back in a three-point hole.

Marbury answered with a pair of free throws, but with only 17 seconds to play Pope found a streaking Johnson for a layup to bump the lead to 55-52 and force Lanett to attempt a game-tying three. After Jakana Brooks missed the Panthers’ first attempt, Pope missed a pair of free throws that would have sealed the game. But two more Lanett threes in the dying seconds bounced away, and the Hatch celebration began.

“God gave us the talent,” Davis said. “We’ve got great players, and we’ve worked a lot on the fundamentals. I learned a lot from (former Hatch) Coach (Eugene) Mason and I’m just glad the administration had the confidence in me to carry on this program’s tradition.”

Sullivan and Coleman shared team-high scoring honors with 12 points each as four Bobcats finished in double-figures. Johnson recorded 11 points, Pope 10, Jones 8, and Antwain Starks 2.

Sullivan and Coleman were each named to the All-Tournament team as Pope, who hauled in a whopping 18 rebounds to lead all players in the championship game, was named Tournament MVP.

“When the first half ended, I was feeling pretty down,” Pope said. “We’ve never been in that situation … But I knew we just had to play hard and get it back. I think every player on Robert C. Hatch’s team should be MVP.”

After Hatch scored the game’s first four points, the remainder of the first half was a disaster for the Bobcats as Lanett scorched the nets from deep. The Panthers hit four three-pointers over the Bobcat zone in the first six minutes alone, building a 16-8 lead.

Behind eight first-quarter points from Sullivan, Hatch battled back to trail by only two, 18-16, at the end of the opening period. But the Bobcats went cold to start the second quarter, going without a field goal for the first 5 minutes and 23 seconds as Lanett built a 31-18 lead and Sullivan sat on the bench with foul trouble.

Lorenzo Jones hit a three-pointer to finally break the drought, but the half ended on a down note when Pope missed an easy putback with 12 seconds to play, sending Hatch into the locker room staring at a 34-25 deficit.

Despite Sullivan leaving the game early in the third quarter, the Hatch defense got the Bobcats back in the contest by holding Lanett to 1 point over the first six minutes of the period. Back-to-back offensive rebounds of missed free throws by Pope–the second resulting in a stickback– led to a three-point possession that cut the lead to 35-33 with 3:28 to play in the quarter.

But back-to-back empty possessions for Hatch followed by Lanett’s first field goal of the period, a driving layup by Deontra Marbury with two minutes left in the period, turned the momentum back in Lanett’s favor and the Panthers led 42-37 going into the final period.

The fourth quarter began slowly, and with 4:00 to play Lanett still clung to a 46-41 edge. But the Hatch defense clamped down and a series of Lanett turnovers led to a Johnson free throw, Coleman score, and Pope basket that tied the game at 46 with 1:18 to play and sent the Hatch fans into a frenzy.

“Our kids just kept fighting,” Davis said. “I’m so proud of our players and our coaching staff.”

With the win, Hatch finishes their title season with a 31-3 record. Davis may not be done winning championships just yet, either: Pope, a junior, Sullivan, a sophomore, and Starks, a junior, will all be back next season.