By Chris McCarthy
Alexandria had shaved Etowah 15-point fourth quarter lead to three points by the time Andy Noles stepped to the foul line with 5.2 seconds left in the Class 5A, Area 13 Tournament championship last Saturday (Feb. 11) in Attalla.
The senior guard needed to make one of two foul shots to provide the Blue Devils with a two-possession advantage and essentially wrap up the win.
Noles’ initial attempt bounced off the rim.
“The [missed attempt] was already out of my mind by then,” said Noles. “I knew I had to focus on the next one.”
Noles’ second shot hit nothing but net, securing Etowah’s 67-63 victory and sending the Blue Devils (14-10) to the sub-regional round, where they will host Guntersville on Tuesday (Feb. 14).
“Andy’s a senior and a great kid, and I knew that he would make that second one,” said Etowah head coach James Graves.
After Noles’ basket a minute into the fourth quarter gave Etowah a 51-36 lead, the Blue Devils had difficulty scoring from the field over the next several possessions. But Etowah compensated for that lack of offense by going 9-for-9 at the free throw line, including a 4-for-4 effort from sophomore forward and Tournament MVP Jamin Graham. His two foul shots at the 3:44 mark of the fourth extended the EHS lead to 59-44.
But the Valley Cub sharpshooters were starting to find their mark. Four three-point baskets fueled a 17-7 run that pulled the visitors within 64-61 with under a minute to play.
Respective foul shots by Noles and Jailyn Jackson provided Etowah with a five-point cushion before a pair of free throws from Alexandria’s Josh Tucker made it a three-point game with 21 seconds left.
The Blue Devils then missed on two free throws, allowing the visitors an opportunity to tie the game with a three-point basket with 14 seconds on the clock. But the ball went out of bounds off an Alexandria player and the Valley Cubs were forced to foul Noles in the final seconds.
“We were missing free throws and [Alexandria] was making 3’s,” said Etowah head coach James Graves of his team’s fourth-quarter struggles. “It’s easy to cut into that kind of deficit when that happens. We were just getting stagnant and not getting off good shots. Sometimes when we get a lead like that, we get out of our element instead of continuing to do what we did to get to that point.”
Emil Smith paced Etowah 16 points, including 12 in the first quarter. Alec Timmons scored 13 points, followed by Graham with 12, Jackson with 10, Noles with eight and Justin Harris with six.
Chase Smitherman led the Valley Cubs with 14 points, followed by Jamal Tucker with 12 and Dalton Dodd with 11.
Etowah shot 68 percent (23-for-34) from the foul line, while Alexandria went 11-for-19 (58 percent).
Smith’s 12-point first quarter helped the Blue Devils take a 16-14 lead after eight minutes. Helped by a pair of three-pointers from Timmons, the hosts began to pull away in the second period.
Graham’s put-back slam at 3:45 gave Etowah its first double-digit advantage at 31-20, and Jackson’s foul shot in the last minute of the first half sent the Blue Devils into the locker room ahead 37-24.
Baskets from Graham and Chris Jones early in the second half pushed the advantage to 17 points, but Etowah failed to score again from the field in the third quarter. Eight points from Landan Williams helped pull the Valley Cubs within 46-34 at the start of the fourth frame.
“We played Guntersville at their place last year in the sub-regionals and lost, so it’s definitely nice to have it here this time,” said Graves. “One of your goals we’ve talked about all season was to make it to Jacksonville, and now we have the chance to do that.”
Blue Devils hold off Alexandria in area title game
By Chris McCarthy