By Matthew Martin/Sports Correspondent
Hokes Bluff was trailing in the fourth quarter on Monday (Feb. 11), and the Eagles could see the area championship slipping away.
That’s when Brad Robertson put Eagles on his back.
The senior guard scored all 13 of his points in the game’s final 7:07 in the championship game of the Class 4A, Area 11 tournament to lead home-standing Hokes Bluff to a thrilling come-from-behind 43-41 win against a feisty Jacksonville squad in high school boys basketball action.
The victory marks the first time that Greg Watkins led his team to a regular season and area tournament title in the same season in his 17 years as HBHS head coach.
“In the second half, we did what these guys have done all year long, which is we kept it close, kept it close, and then made a move in the fourth quarter,” Greg Watkins said. “That speaks a lot about what kind of folks they are.”
Hokes Bluff (20-9) hosts Munford on Friday (Feb. 15) in the sub-region round of the Class 4A state playoffs. If they win, the Eagles will advance to next week’s Northeast Regional Tournament at Jacksonville State University.
“I told Coach (Jeff) Noah at the start of the third quarter [when] we were down six or seven (points), ‘Let’s just keep it close and win this thing in the fourth quarter,’ and that’s what [we] did. (Jacksonville) got up on us by eight or nine, but we battled back and got it within two or three, where it’s manageable. I think we’ve been in five or six games (this season) that went in overtime. This one didn’t, but it could have.”
The Eagles did compete, but had little to show for it entering the fourth quarter.
Jacksonville (14-13) held a slim 19-16 lead at halftime, but came out in the third quarter like a different team.
The Golden Eagles, and sophomore point guard Sid Thurmond in particular, evidently used the halftime break to recharge their batteries.
Thurmond scored eight points, including a pair of 3-pointers, in the third frame. Guard Des Curry added a jumper and a free throw, helping Jacksonville take a 32-23 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Just when it appeared the Golden Eagles were going to pull the upset, however, Hokes Bluff switched from a zone to a full-court man-to-man defense.
That change in strategy made the difference.
“I think it changed the tempo of the game, which was the biggest thing, ” Watkins said. “It got us in a bit more of a rhythm offensively. On defense, we forced them to take some bad shots.”
“We had guys in foul trouble and guys that were gassed. It was just one of those deals where the kids just sucked it up and played. I was just worried about us fouling, but our guys did a great job in the press. Early in the game, with their pressure, we were turning the ball over and couldn’t get in any sets (offensively).”
The change in tempo was obvious in the fourth quarter’s first minute. After 25 minutes of mostly missed jump shots, the Eagles began driving to the basket.
With a little over seven minutes left in the game, Robertson made his first drive to the rim – which happened to also be his first points of the game – and was fouled. He missed the free throw, leaving the score at 32-25, but the tone was set. It was the last free throw Robertson would miss the remainder of the game, which was important, considering Hokes Bluff was just 6-of-12 previously from the charity stripe.
After a pair of Jacksonville turnovers, 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas grabbed an offensive rebound and scored, and with 6:26 left the Eagles had whittled the Golden Eagles’ lead to 32-27.
Jake Ingram scored moments later to make it 32-29.
Curry hit a jumper and Robertson got another basket over the next couple of minutes as the Golden Eagles attempted to run the clock out with a five-point lead.
Robertson then knocked down the Eagles’ second 3-pointer of the game to trim the deficit to 36-34, the closest the game had been since the first minute of the third quarter.
The Golden Eagles had a chance to seal the win just one minute later.
Haas had grabbed an offensive rebound and gone back up for a shot and was fouled. But in the scramble during the foul, Haas knocked Jacksonville’s Andrew Clingan to the floor and was whistled for a technical foul. Haas missed his free throw with 1:51 left and Jacksonville leading 38-34.
Clingan missed both of his foul shots, however, and on the Golden Eagles’ ensuing possession Thurmond was fouled as he attempted to run out the clock. He made the first free throw but missed the second, leaving the score at 39-34.
On the next two possessions, Robertson stepped to the line and sank a pair of free throws to draw Hokes Bluff within 39-38.
Curry followed Robertson to the line on Jacksonville’s next possession, and like Robertson, drained two free throws, pushing the Jacksonville lead back to three points at 41-38.
But the three-point margin still gave Hokes Bluff a chance. The question was whether the Eagles would go for the tie, or with 45 seconds remaining, would Hokes Bluff elect to try to get an easier shot and extend the game?
Matthew Watkins answered those questions just a little over 10 seconds later.
The senior forward curled around a screen, found himself wide open at the top of the key and took the open shot. The ball bounced off the glass and banked into the basket to tie the game at 41-41.
“I was going crazy,” Robertson said of Matthew Watkins’ shot. “I don’t even know. When he knocked down that ‘3,’ that was unbelievable. For my senior year, and for my teammates, that was really huge.”
Jacksonville still had plenty of time to win the game, but where shots had been falling for Curry earlier in the game, his shots would not go down.
Curry’s first attempt was rebounded by Robertson, who walked to the other end of the floor and made a pair of free throws with 14.9seconds left to give Hokes Bluff its first lead since a12-11 advantage early in the second quarter.
Jacksonville’s final shot fell short, sending the Eagles into a frenzied celebration as the final horn sounded.
“We talked about attacking the rim at halftime,” Greg Watkins said. “The first half, we were kind of passive and not attacking the rim. That’s one of the things with the press. Once you get a steal, you want to run and attack the basket. Brad did a really good job of that.
“I’ll tell you the difference in the game – and it’s fundamental basketball – is that Brad hit free throws down the stretch. We hadn’t done that in games we have lost this year.” Besides Robertson, Hokes Bluff was led by Ingram, Haas and Matthew Watkins, who each scored seven points. Haas also grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked four shots.
Curry led all scorers with 21 points, while Thurmond scored 11 points.
In the tournament semifinals on Feb. 8, Hokes Bluff defeated Cherokee County, 42-40, while Jacksonville beat Alexandria, 54-53.