JACKSONVILLE — Long-time friends Malcolm Carlisle and Antonio Kite teamed up at Anniston this season with big dreams. How big was Birmingham in all of that?
“Real big,” Carlisle said. “We made it. We made it.”
The Bulldogs overcame a one-basket second half with stout defense of their own and drew even with area rival White Plains on the season Monday, winning 48-37 in the Class 4A boys Northeast Regional final in Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.
Anniston (25-6) advanced to Friday’s 4:30 p.m. state semifinal against Vigor in Birmingham CrossPlex’s Bill Harris Arena.
A proud program with two state titles to its credit since 2002, Anniston’s boys will make their first Final Four appearance since 2011.
Anniston also saw both its boys’ and girls’ teams reach Birmingham for the first time since 2009. Anniston’s girls eliminated Handley 52-37 earlier Monday.
Anniston’s boys lost in the Northeast Regional final in 2020, 2019 and 2016, with two of those losses coming to eventual state champions Talladega and Mae Jemison.
“The expectations are so high at Anniston,” fifth-year Anniston coach Torry Brown said. “We’ve been there, done that so many times.
“The last couple of years … we won 25, 26 games, but it wasn’t a success. We feel like that, if we don’t win it, then the season is just not a success.”
Anniston came into Monday’s game having lost two of three games against White Plains this season, with Kite and/or Carlisle missing significant playing time or not playing in both losses.
Kite sat out of Anniston’s area final against White Plains and most of a sub-regional game at Jacksonville with a hand issue. He scored four points in limited time in Anniston’s regional-semifinal against Randolph.
Kite also missed significant practice time during that stretch.
Playing on one practice Monday, the all-state guard played 26 minutes and scored seven points on 3-for-13 shooting.
Carlisle held his own with 17 points. Known for his shooting range, he swished a near-midcourt shot to beat the halftime buzzer and put Anniston up 34-18.
It wasn’t a desperation heave. He dribbled to a spot and launched a form shot just inside the mid-court line.
“My range?” Carlisle said, parroting a reporter’s question. “I don’t have range. I was just confident, for real. I knew I could hit it.
“I’ve just got range, that’s all. I like shooting the ball.”
Anniston also got 10 points from Troy Hall, and Kamron Sandlin pulled down nine rebounds to go with his six points. They helped the Bulldogs get out to a 10-0 lead and never trail.
The Bulldogs’ main weapon was defense. They held White Plains to seven first-half field goals, seven fewer than Anniston made in the first two quarters.
Anniston’s defensive success came with adjustment.
"We felt like we were going to try to tempo press them early, and then, when they got in the halfcourt, try to take away five," Brown said, referring to White Plains guard Quin Wilson's jersey number. "They got some open looks in the first quarter, and we weren't getting back in the halfcourt like we should have, so we kind of scrapped that and went to halfcourt."
White Plains (21-7) returned the favor in the second half. Anniston went 1-for-22 from the floor, 0-for-16 in the third quarter.
"We started out the game down 10-zero, so we knew, after that, we were going to have to really communicate on defense and be connected on defense if we were going to come back and win," Wilson said. "That's what we tried to do."
Led by Walker O'Steen's 10 points and 14 rebounds to go with seven points from Brody Baker, White Plains rallied to within 15-11 on a Baker layup at 1:42 of the first quarter. An O'Steen 3-pointer brought the Wildcats within 20-14 at 6:31 of the second quarter, but Anniston outscored White Plains 14-4 the rest of the half.
Two Jaden Chatman free throws got White Plains within 41-34 with 2:29 to play in the fourth, but the Wildcats got no closer.
"We just weren't making enough shots," Baker said. "They were in the beginning. You've got to give them credit. Their defense was just as good as ours, if not better, and we just weren't making anything."
So ends a memorable run for a group of White Plains seniors that includes Baker, a two-time all-state player, Wilson, Chatman, Jacob Wheeler, Landon Senciboy, Kahlil Williams and Garrett Wilson.
"It's hard to put into words, but I told them I feel like ... I've got the best job in America," White Plains coach Chris Randall said. "You get to coach these people.
"I've had my eyes on them since they were little fellas. I remember working them out as seventh-graders, when they were in middle school. In 20 years, I've never had a group that liked each other better, that was easier to coach, that were more connected."
Randall credited many years playing together. Of the 11 varsity regulars that suited up Monday, nine played together in kindergarten, Randall said. One came in the second grade and one in the third.
"They've met," Randall said. "They've grown up together. Their families have grown up together. They will be in each others' lives forever.
"It's not like we recruit folks and bring them in and out. They're White Plains folks. They're White Plains kids. For them to call me coach, man, I'm telling you. It's the best sound in the world for them to call me coach."
For Anniston, the hopes and dreams of a dynamic duo and a cast that has grown around it continue. The duo became legends together on the lower levels and reunited this season, when Carlisle's journey from Saks, to Faith Christian, to Sacred Heart and back to Saks took him to Anniston.
Carlisle went nearly two years between games, but it's on to Birmingham.
"We first want to go win state for the city and for every one of our fans, and stuff," Kite said, "but mostly we're just happy to play together. I'm just happy he was on the court."