BIRMINGHAM – When it mattered the most, Sylacauga High School’s boys basketball team put together its biggest win of the season against its toughest rival.
The Aggies held on for a 59-55 victory over Talladega in a Class 5A Final Four semifinal at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex on Wednesday night.
“I know this was a state semifinal game, but there was a lot of local flavor to it. That was neat,” Sylacauga head coach Will Copeland said. “It was good to win this game, but also, this team is 20 miles from us. They’ve beaten us three times this year, the last two times by a total of (seven) points.
“We’ve been stressing to our guys, ‘We’ve got to finish against them. This is our rival.’ … It feels really good to beat Talladega and it feels really good to win a state semifinal game.”
Sylacauga senior forward Malik Crawford hit a pair of free throws with 6.2 seconds remaining to put the game out of reach.
“Our coaches put us in positions like that in practice all the time, and we just have to step up and make the free throws,” Crawford said. “Here lately, we’ve been spending a lot of time in practice on free throws because during the regular season, we were a poor free-throw shooting team. In the postseason, we took some time, and we’ve really stepped up our game at the free-throw line.”
Crawford, who had struggled with slow starts alongside his teammates in previous postseason outings, scored 10 of his team-leading 27 points in the opening frame to give Sylacauga a 21-13 advantage. He shot 12-of-15 from the floor and went 3-for-4 from the charity stripe.
“It helped that (Talladega guard Fred Dickerson) got two fouls,” Copeland said. “When he went out, we went into a press, and we play more comfortable that way … We were really focused this game, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys coming out there and battling.”
Talladega opened with an 8-2 run in the second stanza, but the Aggies regained control and took a 32-25 lead into the locker room.
Ashton Duncan hit a pair of 3s to open the second half and spark the Tigers’ offense. Talladega tied the game at 45-all going into the fourth quarter despite having its trio of guards – Duncan, Dickerson and Chaztin Tanner limited to eight points apiece.
“When it comes down to it, what won the game for us was just straight man (defense), what we’ve played all year,” Copeland said. “In this type of game, that’s what you’ve got to do … (Dickerson, Tanner and Duncan) are the guys we had to stop … Dickerson had 29 points the last time we played them. (Tanner) had five 3s in the first quarter the first time we played. A very good defensive effort won this game.”
The Aggies went into the final 74 seconds with a 55-49 edge, but the Tigers closed the gap to 57-55 with 6.9 seconds to play thanks to a trio of baskets from sophomore forward Kobe Simmons, who led the Tigers with 16 points.
Aggies forward Erron Bryant finished with 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists, a block and three steals. Guard Darrian Garrett scored all 11 of his points in the first half.
Sylacauga will face Eufaula in the state championship game on Saturday at 10:45 a.m. The Tigers defeated Wenonah 79-73 in the other semifinal.