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Sumter County: “No regrets”

(Editor’s Note: Although a complete recap of game action from Sumter County’s championship game against Madison Academy is available in Saturday’s edition of the Times, press deadlines Friday night prevented reaction from being included in that article.)

To say that Sumter County’s 1-versus-2 3A championship contest against Madison Academy Friday night didn’t go as the Wildcats planned would be a colossal understatement.

The Mustangs didn’t just defeat the two-time defending state champions, they routed them, taking a 20-point lead in the third quarter en route to an overwhelming 73-48 championship victory.

“We’re not used to coming in second,” said Sumter County head coach Alonzo Sledge, who was denied his second title at the Wildcat helm after winning it all in 2005. “We knew if we got behind, with their ballhandlers and ability to spread the court, it was going to be a quite a challenge, and it was.”

The turning point of the game came in the second quarter, with Madison up 17-15 and Sumter’s Cornelius Ward at the line to shoot one-and-one with 3:27 to play before halftime. Ward missed the front end, and Madison’s Kerron Johnson hit a three-pointer on the ensuing possession to spark a 15-2 run over the final three minutes. Madison hit all six of their shots in that stretch.

The Mustangs stayed just as hot in the third period, pulling away for a 54-32 lead after three quarters. In the second and third quarters combined, Madison shot an unconscious 17-of-23 for a 74 percent field goal percentage. Perhaps most impressive, the Mustangs made their run with star player Bawa Muniru, a 6-11 sophomore center, on the bench with foul trouble.

“The big guy picked up those two fouls, but I think that actually hurt us because their other guys were quicker,” Sledge said. “That’s when they got out in front of us. We needed to continue to attack the basket, but we kind of lost our composure. We’re not a three-point shooting team.”

The statistics bore that out: while Madison finished the game shooting 57 percent from beyond the arc (8-of-14) Sumter shot only 20 percent (3-for-15). As the lead grew the Wildcats frequently took long jump shots instead of looking for center Patrick Delaine, who had one of his better playoff games with a 11-point, 11-rebound double-double.

“We didn’t go inside as much as we could have,” Sledge said. “We should have gone inside more often.”

The lead ballooned all the way to the final margin of 25, but the Mustangs’ Tyler Hanback, the Tournament MVP, said that Madison was just making sure they had no chance of letting the title slip away from them.

“We knew we couldn’t let down even for a minute,” Hanback said. “We knew (Sumter County) were a great team and would come back if we gave them a chance.”

For Sumter senior guard Larry Foster, the game brought an unhappy close to an often stellar career that saw Foster named to the AHSAA South All-Star team last summer. But Foster said afterwards he’s not one to dwell too long on the loss.

“We wanted to play hard and let the chips fall where they fall. But they came out hard. They wanted the championship, and they took it,” he said. “I came to Birmingham four times and I’m leaving the way I came in, with a loss. But I don’t have any regrets. Even if I knew how the game was going to end, I still would have wanted to play it.”

Likewise, Sledge said the title game shouldn’t obscure what had otherwise been another excellent season for the program.

“I told our players we had played some great games. I took my hat off to them. Greene County, Central-Tuscaloosa, Leeds … we never blew anybody out, but we won a lot of games where we could have given up and lost,” he said. “What sums it up, tonight (Madison Academy) were hungrier. We’ve got guys who have won this thing before and they just had a lot more hunger than our guys.”