ALPINE -- After a 15-year drought, Winterboro High School’s boys basketball team returned to prominence Saturday with a Class 1A, Area 8 tournament championship victory over rival Talladega County Central, 60-41.
Bulldogs coach Sheroderick Smith said his team reviewed film clips from Winterboro’s history against TC Central the past 15 years as a motivational tool.
“The question was posed before the game, ‘What group is finally going to end the dominating streak that TC has had on us?’” Smith said. “In the course of 15 years, last year’s group came pretty close, but this year’s group prevailed.
“(In the clips), we showed how we had some wins in the past, but over the past 15 years or so, the torch wasn’t passed along to keep the rivalry brewing. We finally made it a rivalry this year, and we won an area title for the first time since 2001.”
Tournament MVP Tae Graham made his presence felt all over the stat sheet. He led the Bulldogs in scoring with 18 points and added four rebounds, two assists, two steals and a blocked shot.
“There’s been a lot of work that me and my coaches have put in together to get where I am now,” Graham said. “He can tell you, I was coming back off two broken wrists and a broken collarbone, so it took a lot of work to get here.
“I honestly didn’t think I was going to get MVP. I wanted Khalil (Keith) to get it because he put in the work for it. But for me to get it, it’s a true blessing.”
His scoring plays included an authoritative dunk after recovering a loose basketball midway through the fourth quarter.
“When I saw the loose ball come out, the first thing on my mind was just to get it and go,” Graham said. “When I saw it, everything just opened up. It was basically like driving on an empty highway. It was just clear, so I went ahead and took it.”
Winterboro controlled the tempo early, playing the slow-paced style TC Central typically likes to employ.
After one half, the Bulldogs led the Fighting Tigers 20-9.
In the third quarter, TC Central picked up its intensity, managing to go score-for-score with Winterboro, but the Bulldogs ended the quarter on an 8-1 run to build a 35-17 advantage.
“I’m very proud of my entire team because this is the first time this year that we’ve actually played a complete basketball game with the points spread out and with people making big plays,” Smith said. “People were doing their thing.
“Graham -- as I stated in the media day -- had some electrifying plays. Keith was a workhorse for us on the boards, and he wasn’t in foul trouble. Quinton Hale was extremely focused, especially in the first half.”
Keith, who finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds, exited the lineup with less than two minutes left in the third quarter after his lip was busted on a play.
Smith said Keith had to make a change after he got blood on his No. 4 jersey. Keith later returned to the floor wearing No. 50.
“You know in basketball, sometimes you’re going to get hit in the face or hit in the lips and stuff like that,” Smith said. “Those things happen. He just had to come out.
“If I hadn’t invested into my bench all season long, then sometimes your talent level kind of dips. We’re able to make subs. We can honestly play, on a great night, everybody, and on a good night, eight to 10 different people, because we have people on the bench who bring different things into the table.”
The Fighting Tigers played arguably their best quarter in the final eight minutes, but they were still outscored by the Bulldogs 25-24.
“I am very proud of my team’s effort, particularly in the second half,” TC Central coach Reginald Jacobs said. “It showed that through adversity, we’re still Fighting Tigers. That’s what I want this group of courageous young men to do because it’s in their nature to be fighters. That’s how we’ve survived all year, and that’s how we’ve survived for years, even before I got here. They look like a very hungry team in the second half. I’m very proud of my kids.
“We know that this is not the end of our season, but just the beginning of our learning experience into becoming men and winners. I was really happy with our kids’ inability to give up.
“We were very tenacious, and we love one another. That’s what we’ve been teaching our kids -- how to stay in the fight and how to stick together. That’s what we showed tonight through adversity.”
Smith thanked the Winterboro fans, especially those in his student section, who’ve been showing up to display their Winterboro pride for the boys and girls basketball teams.
“They’ve been very supportive, standing up on their feet the entire tournament that we’ve played, both boys and girls,” he said. “I really appreciate Smith’s Student Section. Y’all have been holding it down the majority of the year, and you actually have picked it up. I want to say personally, thank you. I love all of you.”
Leon Estelle, Graham, Keith and Hale, who scored 16 points, pulled down three boards and came away with three steals, represented the Bulldogs on the all-tournament team.
Devilyn Keller led the Fighting Tigers with 17 points. He joined teammates Javion Surles and Kentrell Duncan on the all-tournament team.
Wadley’s Quay Drake and Trent Belcher rounded out the all-tournament team.