Hoops 2006: A season in review

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Believe it or not, that’s it. No more. It’s finished. Done. Over. Moved on.

The high school basketball season might seem like it only started yesterday, but when Sumter County was done taking on took on Madison Academy in Friday night’s 3A championship game, the Black Belt’s 2005-06 hoops season was done. Aside from exhibition tourneys over the summer, the next tip-off won’t happen until next November.

So before our local sports fans’ attentions move on completely to bats, balls, and bases, let’s take a look back at one person’s opinion of the best and brightest from this season in area basketball:

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SWEETEST SEASON: Near the end of the 2004-05 season, the R.C. Hatch boys were ranked No. 1 in the state and appeared to be cruising towards the playoffs and a possible third straight state championship. But a wayward elbow fractured center Calvin Pope’s skull and with the then-sophomore on the sideline, Altamont shocked the Bobcats in Uniontown in the sub-regional round, denying retiring legend Eugene Mason even a trip to Mobile for Regionals.

But with Pope back, star guard Frankie Sullivan a year older, seven seniors providing plenty of leadership, and new coach Homer Davis picking up right where Mason left off, the Bobcats reclaimed the title their fans will tell you they deserved in 2005. Hatch finished strong to return the favor against top-ranked Altamont in the Regional final, and then overturned a 13-point first half deficit in the 2A championship game to defeat Lanett by three in overtime. The title was Hatch’s third in four seasons and they might not be done yet–Pope and Sullivan both return and Altamont moves to 3A in 2007.

(The Hatch girls aren’t too far behind. Coach Walter Abrahams’ team won a rematch of the 2005 Regional final against Calera to qualify for their third Final Four in four years. They fell to an unconscious 39-point performance by Sand Rock’s Taylor Burt in the semifinals.)

Speaking of Hatch…

BEST GAME: For pulse-pounding drama with the highest possible stakes, there was no topping the Bobcats’ 55-52 overtime win over the Lanett Panthers. After falling behind 31-18 in the first half and with holes shot all through Hatch’s zone defense, coach Davis switched to a man-to-man and little by little, Hatch crawled back into the game. A turnover by senior point guard Lorenzo Jones in the last 15 seconds cost Hatch a chance to win the game in regulation (just as a missed Panther free throw cost Lanett the lead), but with Sullivan fouled out Jones and the rest of the Bobcats came up big in the extra period. At a time of the game when most coaches would play it safe and wait for a foul, Hatch attacked the basket, getting a layup by Phillip Johnson to stretch the lead to 3 and claim the victory.

How good was this game? Birmingham News high school sports guru Ron Ingram named it the best of the Final Four, in any class.

BEST GAME, RUNNER-UP: In the second half of their AISA Class A West Area IV championship game, MMI couldn’t find a way to stop Warrior Academy’s JaMichael Rivers. Fortunately for the Tigers, he stopped himself, fouling out with 43 points and a seven-point Warrior lead. But without him the Braves crumbled, giving up the lead in a matter of seconds and trailing by two when their final possession started with 18 ticks left on the clock.

Good thing for the Braves they still had Jamey Donaldson. The team’s fourth-leading scorer stepped up to hit a three-pointer just ahead of the buzzer to give Warrior a wild 80-79 win and propel the Braves on their way to the Class A state title. Rivers was the team’s best player and MVP, but no single shot in their championship season was bigger than Donaldson’s.

Honorable mentions: The Demopolis and Greensboro girls’ first three narrow-as-can-be tilts; Daniel Logan’s buzzer beater to give WAP a last-second win over Southern Academy; Sunshine’s heartbreaking loss to eventual state champion McIntosh in the Regional finals; Linden’s more-than-valiant effort against J.F. Shields at Regionals; and the Demopolis games listed below.

BIGGEST UPSETS: The Demopolis boys entered the 4A Area 5 tournament as the third seed. But after losing to fourth-place Choctaw County (a team the Tigers had beaten in their first meeting by more than 40 points) and edging by Bibb County, scoring less than 40 points in both games, it’s safe to say the Tigers were bigger underdogs than “third seed” coming into their area semifinal with Livingston. After all, the Cougars were rolling, having easily defeated Demopolis by double-digits in their previous meeting and knocked off top seed Greene County just a week prior.

But Demopolis found a way, winning 52-50 on a pair of Shantrell Braxton free throws in overtime. The Tigers then turned around and surprised 4A No. 5 Greene County on their own home court, 37-33, to take home the area championship. A loss at home to UMS-Wright in the sub-regionals ended the Tigers’ season on a down note, but the area title was a huge accomplishment for a team that had bowed out in the first round to Choctaw County in 2005.

HEY, YOU CHAUVINIST, YOU SURE HAVEN’T WRITTEN MUCH ABOUT THE GIRLS YET: Oops. You’re right. Major kudos are in order to the Demopolis Lady Tigers, which also claimed an area title and qualified for their eighth straight Regionals behind the senior leadership of leading scorers Shawnese Armstead and Katerria Johnson; Sumter County, which behind the senior frontcourt of Tenesia Ruffin and Rekina Crawford emerged from the shadow of the Sumter boys to come within a game of the Final Four; Greensboro, which climbed into the top 10 on their way to an area title despite not starting a senior; Sunshine, who made a second straight Regional Finals appearance thanks to dynamic senior guard Francesca Bates; and the R.C. Hatch Lady Bobcats, for the reasons mentioned above.

But the biggest story of the girls season belonged to MMI. After years of both the Tiger girls and boys knocking on the door, 6-3 senior center Felicia Sprott scored on a putback with 1:30 to go to cap a late comeback and help bring home the school’s first state championship, 40-36 over Lowndes Academy.

WORST CASE OF RUNNING INTO A BUZZSAW: After their loss to Demopolis, Greene County deserves a lot of credit for recovering and making their second straight final Four. Too bad the Tigers happened to play Saks the one night the Wildcats couldn’t miss from deep–the Saks starting guards finished 8 of 13 from three-point land, only a game before shooting 0-for-13 against Hillcrest in the 4A final.

But even Greene County wasn’t as unlucky as Sumter County. The two-time defending champion Wildcats had a heck of a team (you don’t go 28-1 without one), but Madison Academy was, quite frankly, playing on another level (like, could have won the 5A or 6A title level). The Mustangs had size (how does 6-11, 6-5, 6-5, 6-4 in their first four grab you?) and shot threes like the second coming of Rick Pitino’s Kentucky teams. Larry Foster and Co. had a better-than-excellent season and have nothing to hang their heads about in losing to a team as white-hot as Madison.

And on that note, consider the basketball season wrapped. Play ball!