By Jake Winfrey
The Cullman Times
Things couldn’t have gone much worse for Cullman’s varsity boys in the first half of Friday’s sub-regional bout versus Muscle Shoals.
The Bearcats — a team which prides itself on scoring and scoring fast — couldn’t buy a basket in the game’s first 16 minutes. They were a paltry 2 of 17 from the 3-point arc and only mustered a 21-point halftime output against the Trojans — by far their lowest total in 31 games this season.
Bobby Meyer, however, wasn’t too worried. After all, rarely are games decided until the second half anyway.
With that, the coach’s halftime message was simple — play with more balance.
And that’s exactly what the Bearcats did.
Seth Swalve scored 18 points, Lawson Schaffer notched 15 and Chase Slocumb had 14 to help the Black and Gold to a 50-point second-half performance and an electric 71-60 win over Muscle Shoals on Friday to advance to next week’s Northwest Regional Tournament at Wallace State.
“We wanted balance coming out of the locker room,” Meyer said. “This team feeds off each other. In the first half, though, nobody came out, hit that huge shot and had that swagger. Our defense kept us in it early. It was just one of those fight-it, grit-it type of games. Luckily, we came out on top.”
Trailing by three entering the third quarter, the Bearcats were finally able to start playing their “#Fast32” brand of basketball.
As a whole, they penetrated the paint more often — which led to tough baskets and kick outs to open shooters. Lane Donaldson made a trey early on, but it was Slocumb who really got the crowd into it later in the frame.
The sharp-shooting junior stroked a pair of huge 3-pointers, the second of which gave his team a 40-38 advantage they’d never relinquish the rest of the game.
“My teammates noticed I was getting hot and got me the ball,” he said. “We knew we’d come out and win. We believed it. I love these guys.”
Added Meyer: “Chase making those shots gave us some swagger. It really sparked us for the rest of the game.”
Meyer’s squad took a 44-41 cushion into the final stanza but quickly extended it out to eight following a couple of bombs from Swalve and Schaffer, as well as two big baskets inside from senior Auston Neal.
That turned out to be more than enough, too, as Cullman kept up its big pressure and went a perfect 7 of 7 from the free-throw line to seal the sweet deal.
Schaffer said his team had to shake its “shooter’s mind” during the second half to finally get into some offensive rhythm.
“We knew we could drive, but we had to get that mentality to drive because we all know we can shoot,” he said “At times we weren’t making them. We had to get to the rim and create. We knew we’d start hitting. Coach told us to keep going. Then we got some stops and got some rebounds and got our transition offense going.”
The Class 5A No. 10 Bearcats (24-7) have now won 11 straight games and 19 of their past 21 contests. It’s been a complete 180 for a team that was sitting at 5-5 early in December.
“It was hard in the beginning,” Schaffer lamented. “The results weren’t there. But we stuck together and believed in it, and we got finally got those nice results. We are going to Wallace with a plan — #Fast32. That’s how we started the season and that’s how we are going to end it — fast.
The Bearcats will take on No. 6 Parker (19-6), which defeated Walker 61-42 in its playoff contest on the road, in the opening round of the regional tournament Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.
The Herd are perennial championship contenders in 5A and will provide Meyer and Co. plenty of resistance and a tough challenge when the two hit the floor.
Just don’t expect Meyer to bat an eye.
“We are proud of this win,” the coach said. “Regionals is always a goal for every team that starts bouncing a basketball in November. It gives us a chance. We’ve played well at Wallace, and we are comfortable there.
“We are looking forward to playing Parker. The state champion is going to come out of this region. Why not us? I can assure you we aren’t going in with any kind of bashfulness. They better be ready for a fast game. They might score 95 points, but we are going to try to score 100. These guys have no fear.”
‰ Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 136 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.