Photo: Etowah High’s Jamin Graham (right) protects the ball from Central Clay County’s Benjamin Street (5) and Quantavis McKinney during the Blue Devils’ 64-55 victory in the Class 5A basketball subregionals last Tuesday (Feb. 13) in Attalla. (Chris McCarthy)
By Chris McCarthy
For the first time in four years, the Etowah High boys basketball earned a mid-February appearance at Jacksonville State.
The Blue Devils withstood a furious fourth-quarter rally by Central Clay County to post a 64-55 victory in the Class 5A subregionals on Tuesday (Feb. 13) in Attalla.
Etowah (24-5) will face Mortimer Jordan in the Northeast Regional Tournament semifinals
at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday (Feb. 17) at JSU’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.
After building a 16-point lead with a minute to go in the third quarter, the Blue Devils saw their double-digit advantage disappear following an 18-2 run by the Volunteers. Clay’s Jacquez Bullock scored nine points during that stretch, including a layup that tied the game at 53 with 4:38 left in the game.
Much like last Saturday’s area championship game victory over Alexandria, however, the Blue Devils left something in the tank for the stretch run.
It started with defense, as Bullock’s basket turned out to be the final time that Clay scored from the field.
Five straight points by Justin Harris restored Etowah’s lead for good. After Quantavis McKinney’s two foul shots with 1:21 left cut the deficit to 58-55, the Blue Devils looked to drain some clock time with the motion offense.
Taylor Berry had other ideas.
The junior point guard found himself unguarded beyond the three-point line in the left corner and knocked down a trey that made it a six-point lead with 55 seconds to go. It was the second straight game that Berry hit a three-pointer with under a minute left, as his trey at the buzzer won the area title against Alexandria last Saturday.
“We were up by three [points] and were supposed to hold the ball, but [Berry] jacked up a 3,” said Etowah head coach James Graves. “It’s always good when he makes it.”
The Vols turned the ball over on the subsequent possession, and Alec Timmons immediately was fouled. The senior guard hit both ends of a one-and-one to pad the Etowah lead to 62-55 with 21 seconds left.
Clay’s subsequent three-point attempt fell short, and with eight seconds remaining Harris nailed down the win with a foul shot.
“We made some big plays and made some big free throws down the stretch, which I think was the difference,” said Graves.
Emil Smith paced the Blue Devils with 17 points, followed by Berry with 13, Timmons with 12 and Harris with eight.
“I’m just so proud of my kids,” said Graves. “They competed the whole night and did everything I asked them to do. [Central Clay] has a bunch of good athletes, and it was up and down all night. I’m sweating all over and I didn’t even play!”
It was bombs away in a back-and-forth first half, as the teams combined for nine three-pointers, six by the Blue Devils. Smith scored eight of his points in the first quarter, including a pair of treys in the final 30 seconds that gave the hosts a 15-11 lead.
Etowah went ahead 19-11 before an 8-0 Vols run tied the score. But the Blue Devils closed out the first half in fine fashion, as Smith’s three-pointer midway through the period and Chris Griffin’s trey with 35 seconds left bookended an 18-2 run and provided the hosts with a 37-21 advantage at intermission.
Etowah maintained a double-digit lead throughout most of the third quarter, with DeRickey Wright’s slam dunk with a minute to go making it 51-35. But a trey by Bullock and a layup from Damian Williams closed the gap to 51-40 entering the fourth and began an 13-3 run that eventually knotted the game at 53.
McKinney led the Volunteers with 16 points, followed by Bullock with 14 and Shamari Simmons with 13.
Graves spoke with his team before the game about the Blue Devils’ single-digit loss to Guntersville in last year’s subregional.
‘We just talked about how we didn’t play as well as we could have and that we wanted to make the best of it this time around,” said Graves. “I couldn’t ask for a better group of kids. This will be my seniors first trip to Jacksonville, so it’s great for them to have an opportunity to witness that atmosphere. It’s going to be fun and exciting to watch.”