Photo: Etowah High’s Jamin Graham (left) goes in for a layup as Arab’s Wesley Tyler defends during the Blue Devils’ 64-44 victory in the Class 5A Northeast Regional Tournament semifinals on Monday (Feb. 18) at Jacksonville State. (Gary Wells)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
The Etowah High basketball team can now attend to some unfinished postseason business.
A year after losing by five points to Talladega in the Northeast Regional Tournament finals, the Blue Devils punched their ticket to a second straight championship game berth with a 64-44 victory over Arab at Jacksonville State.
Etowah faces Center Point on Thursday at 10:45 a.m. for the chance to make the state tournament in Birmingham.
With the exception of brief Arab runs midway through the third quarter and early in the fourth, the Blue Devils (19-9) maintained control from start to finish. In particular, Etowah decimated the Knights under the boards with a 49 to 25 advantage in rebounding, including a 22 to eight edge on the offensive end.
Arab had no answer for Etowah senior center Jamin Graham, who ended up with a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds. He also dished out seven assists and blocked three shots.
No Arab player grabbed more than six rebounds, and only two Knights had more than one offensive board.
“That was our goal from the start – to start it inside and work our way out,” said Etowah head coach James Graves. “When we come to play on the defensive end, it makes a world of difference for us, and we did that today. Arab’s a scrappy bunch and made some good plays down the stretch. We knew we had a to play a good game to beat those guys. My hats off to [Arab] coach [Justin] Jonus.”
Taylor Berry added 11 points for Etowah, followed by Emil Smith with nine and Devin Laster with seven. DeRickey Wright grabbed six rebounds, while Laster pulled down five.
Etowah held the erstwhile sharpshooting Knights to 33 percent overall shooting (15-for-45) and eight percent (1-for-12) from three-point range. Arab shot itself out of the game with a 3-for-25 performance in the fourth quarter, including 0-for7 from the perimeter.
“They’ve got three or four guys that can make that ‘3,’ and we pressured them a little bit and made it tough on them,” said Graves.
Etowah never trailed after opening the game with an 11-2 run. The Knights (20-13) pulled within 15-9 after one quarter, but the Blue Devils responded with a 12-3 run, with Graham and Justin Harris each netting five points during that span. Arab put together an 8-2 spurt later in the period to pull within 29-20 at intermission.
Etowah extended its lead to 13 by the midway point of the third quarter, then made only one field goal over the final 3:38 of the period. That mini-drought allowed Knights to draw within 37-30 and move Graves to call a time-out.
“I told our kids just to concentrate,” said Graves. “We lost focus a little bit and got out of our element.”
Eleven seconds after Graves’ pep talk, Laster knocked down a three-point basket that pushed the Blue Devil lead back to double-digits. Laster added a pair of foul shots and a layup during the final minute of the quarter for a 44-34 lead.
A traditional three-point play from Wesley Tyler pulled the Knights within seven points a minute into the fourth period but Arab managed only two more field goals the rest of the game. Etowah responded to Tyler’s score with a 14-0 run, effectively putting the game away and sending the Attalla squad a win away from the state tournament.
“I knew that our kids were ready, and they played hard and they played well,” said Graves. “We just had to go out and execute, and we did a fine job. We’re right back where we were last year, and it’s a blessing to have another opportunity. We try not to worry about what everybody else is doing and play our game the way it’s supposed to be played on both ends of the court. One thing about this bunch is that I never have to worry about how hard they’ll play.”
“We made it to the second round (of the regionals) last year, and we’ll come back on Thursday we’ll try to get to Birmingham,” said Smith.
“This was our goal coming in, to make it back to this point,” added Graham. “We’ve just got to finish the job.”