BIRMINGHAM – Down nine points with 2:54 left in regulation, Eufaula didn’t give up, coming back to tie it and force overtime.
Down seven in the extra period with 1:20 left and three starters fouled out, the Tigers kept plugging away, giving themselves two opportunities to go ahead in the final 10 seconds.
The valiant effort, though, came up short as the Tigers couldn’t convert on those last two chances. Sylacauga held off the charge and won 79-78 in the Class 5A state championship game at the BJCC Legacy Arena on Saturday morning.
The high-intensity game featured plenty of ups and down and momentum swings. There were nine ties and 10 lead changes. Eufaula had a run of 12 straight points in the third quarter, only to see the Aggies follow with 17 straight points to reclaim the lead.
The pace was fast and furious at times as the teams combined for 144 shots from the floor, 61 free throws, 101 rebounds and 44 turnovers.
Eufaula, which entered with a 16-game winning streak, ended the season 29-10. Sylacauga won the state on the 30th anniversary of their only previous state title (1988) and finished 31-5.
“You have to tip your hat and congratulate Sylacauga on an excellent season and an excellent game today,” Eufaula head coach Michael Smith said. “They played with a little more energy and won. They are the state champions, but my team showed a lot of character and lot of heart. We were down seven and had three starters foul out and fought back (for a chance to win it). I wouldn’t trade my young men for anything.”
Tyler Mayo, a senior who fouled out after earning a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds, said the Tigers’ effort was typical of the season. Eufaula struggled in December and had a 9-7 record at one point before turning things around in January.
“No matter how many times we cried, no matter how many times we wanted to give up on the baseline running (sprints) in December or anytime, all the tough times we went through, we maintained to stay together and build each other up to get where we are at,” Mayo said.
“Through all the pain in this game, going down, going up, going down, we always stayed positive, knowing we could get the lead back. We were building each other up.”
After trailing 62-53 with 2:54 left following a 22-2 Aggie run, ignited by the 17-0 tear, the Tigers battled back to force overtime on a putback by Marquise Jones with 4.5 seconds left.
Eufaula scored nine straight to tie at 62 behind four steals along with four points from Jones, three from Laquaveous Nelson and two from Mayo. Sylacauga forged ahead by four (66-62) on a fastbreak layup by Malik Powell and two free throws from tournament MVP Malik Crawford.
However, a jumper by the Tigers’ Terrell Jones with 39 seconds left and the putback by Marquise Jones in the final seconds re-tied it. Sylacauga missed on a long 3-pointer and the game went to overtime.
The Aggies quickly seized a six-point lead in the four-minute extra period off a layup by Crawford and two putbacks by Desmon Jones. Eufaula missed on four shots, including two putback tries.
Sylacauga twice built a seven-point lead, the last at 77-70 with 1:20 left. However, Anthony Haigler earned a putback and Nelson drained a clutch 3-pointer, quickly closing it to 77-75 with 1:04 left.
Darian Garrett hit two free throws for Sylacauga with 55.4 seconds left then Nelson missed a 3-pointer. However, Nelson got it back on a steal after the rebound under the basket and hit a layup while being fouled. He converted the free throw to close the gap to 79-78 with 40.9 seconds left.
Sylacauga, which struggled most of the second half on free throws, missed on two with 14.3 seconds left. Eufaula’s Nelson, a left-hander, missed on a shot between the lane and arch off the left side and Sylacauga’s Garrett was fouled with 3.9 seconds left after the rebound.
Garrett, though, missed both free throws and Eufaula had a chance for the win after Nelson got the rebound.
The Tiger junior, who led Eufaula with 21 points, raced down the right side, crossed midcourt but had Crawford coming at him. With time running down, he lofted a shot to the left of Crawford, but it bounced high off the backboard and harmlessly to the ground to end the game.
“It felt like it was a bad look because he was all in my face,” Nelson said. “I couldn’t get a good shot off. I had to throw it up. I didn’t mean to throw it up like that. It just came out of my hand that way.”
Smith said Eufaula had the player it wanted with the ball under the circumstances. The Tigers already had point guard Jadarious Blackshire and senior standouts Mayo and Jones foul out, the first two in the final three minutes of regulation and Jones, who had 20 points, with 1:50 left in OT.
“First thing we wanted was to get the ball to Laquaveous,” said Smith, who had called a timeout between Garrett’s free throws. “I thought we would be able to get deeper penetration. We wanted him to go for a layup if possible, but the ball was going to be in his hands. We had the ball in the person we wanted. He was our best offensive player on the floor at the time.”
Eufaula’s Nelson, Jones and Mayo, who combined for 53 points Saturday, were named to the all-tournament team.
Crawford, who led Sylacauga with 20 points and 10 rebounds, was named the MVP. Aggies Jones (16 points and nine rebounds) and Powell (13 points, five rebounds) were also named to the all-tournament team.
Sylacauga had a fourth starter in double figures Saturday as Garrett finished with 13 points, most off 7-of-10 free throw shooting.
Sylacauga finished the game 22-of-41 at the foul line, while Eufaula hit 13-of-20.
The Tigers were 35.3 percent from the floor, making only 30-of-85 shots, including 5-of-24 on 3-pointers. The Aggies were 27-of-59 from the floor, good for 45.8 percent, including 3-of-12 on threes.
Sylacauga won the rebounding battle, 54-47, though Eufaula had 23 offensive rebounds and had a 25-21 edge in second chance points. The Tigers forced 27 Aggie turnovers, capitalizing those for 35 points, while Sylacauga scored 24 points off 17 Eufaula turnovers.
“It has been a long time since Eufaula has been in the state championship (1999),” Tiger senior Terrell Jones said. “I remember the first day coach Smith came in the gym (three years ago). He told me, ‘If you want to be a state champion, you have to be different.’
“Every second that wound down I was thinking, ‘I have to be different. I have to separate myself to show I am different’ because I wanted to be a state champion. We just fell one point short.”