By Jake Winfrey
The Cullman Times
Cullman’s varsity boys got exactly the kind of matchup they wanted against Gardendale on Friday night.
The Bearcats ran the floor efficiently and as often as possible — coach Bobby Meyer’s goal each and every time on the court — collecting numerous buckets on fast-paced possessions.
Unfortunately for Cullman, though, the Rockets accomplished the same feat — and just a bit more — as they eased past the Black and Gold 78-73 in the semifinals of the Yule Tide Classic.
“It’s a tough loss,” Meyer said following the game. “You can’t give extra possessions to a good team in a close game. That’s what we did tonight. Both teams played hard and well. We lost to a high-caliber basketball team.”
Both squads battled it out from the opening tip to the final buzzer, neither willing to concede an inch.
Gardendale grabbed an early 23-19 lead behind the play of Austin Hicks before the Bearcats stormed back with a secret weapon of their own — Seth Swalve.
The sophomore went off in the second quarter, dropping in 18 of his game-high 31 points in the frame — to lift his team to a 40-35 halftime lead.
Cullman stretched its cushion to as many as nine points late in the third frame, but the Rockets weren’t about to go quietly into the night.
Hicks attacked the rim at will, while teammates Juan Jackson and Marshall Williams found their stroke from downtown to cut the deficit to just one entering the fourth.
The final eight minutes of the game mirrored a heavyweight bout, as each squad exchanged blow after blow all the way to the last 90 seconds of the contest.
A Lawson Schaffer trey and a couple of Lane Donaldson free throws gave the Bearcats a 70-68 advantage with 1:41 left on the scoreboard.
It was the last time the Black and Gold remained in front, however, as Jackson buried the go-ahead 3 from the left corner before Hicks made a free throw and followed up his miss with a critical offensive putback to give the Rockets a four-point cushion.
“It was a game of runs,” Meyer said. “We'd make one, then they'd make one. They just had the last little one that made the difference. Second-chance points are what hurt us today.”
Cullman had a couple of opportunities to get back into the game, but a turnover and a missed 1-and-1 at the line all but sealed the Bearcats’ fate.
Schaffer and Donaldson pitched in 16 and 14 points each in the loss, while Austin Beck netted four. Chase Slocumb and Jason McAfee both drained a 3-pointer, and Keaton Dean rounded out the scoring with a layup.
The Black and Gold (9-6) will take on Arab in the consolation game Saturday at 5 p.m.
% Holly Pond 57, Athens 38: Scott Adams didn't have too much to be upset about following his team's semifinal victory over the Class 5A Golden Eagles on Friday afternoon.
The 3A No. 4 Lady Broncos parlayed a 20-6 first-quarter run and a suffocating zone defense into a title-game spot in the second annual Yule Tide Classic.
"I was really pleased with how we started the game," said Adams, whose team won its ninth straight game and 15th overall. "That got us to where we wanted to be. We did let their pressure get to us a bit late in the game, but I was happy with the way we handled the ball and drove to the basket overall. We showed a lot of toughness against a really good team."
Meg Gambrill collected nine first-quarter points, while Natasha Holcombe and Rachel Finley each contributed a 3-point basket to give Holly Pond an early 14-point lead after one.
The Green and White held 30-14 and 40-22 quarter advantages as well.
Athens never got within single digits after the first stanza.
"They aren't a 3-point shooting team," Adams said. "We just played zone and collapsed on their bigs. We had to limit their overall touches because they are hard to rebound against."
The Golden Eagles made a bit of noise midway through the fourth quarter, cutting their deficit to 14 and putting the Broncos against the ropes.
However, Taylor Rowell — thrust into ball-handling duty due to Green and White foul trouble — was the saving grace. The senior scored seven points in the frame, including a clutch 3-point basket that all but put the game on ice.
"Taylor is one of the toughest and smartest players I've ever coached," Adams said. "She doesn't care about scoring at all, but she's smart enough to know when we do need a basket. I can always depend on her when it matters most."
Gambrill finished with a game-high 16 points, while Rowell and Finley were each good for 11 in the win.
Other contributors included Holcombe, seven points; Melissa Clingman, four; Taylor Tankersley, three; Ruth Horton and Kaitlyn Stephens, two apiece; and Abby Gambrill, one.
Holly Pond will look to complete a perfect 3-0 record when it takes the court for the championship game versus Cullman Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
"We love to be in the finals of any tournament," Scott said. "We have a lot of second-place finishes, so we'd like to finally win one of these."
% Cullman 43, Hartselle 19: The Lady Bearcats punched their ticket into the title game with an absolute lockdown effort on the defensive end of the floor.
Coach Jonathan Hayes' team forced turnover after turnover, while holding the Tigers to just four made field goals over the first three quarters of play.
"We've been playing good defense lately, and that's been the spark for us over the last few games," Hayes said. "When we are struggling on offense, we know we can always count on our D. Just a tremendous effort tonight."
Cullman (10-5) was barely tested against its usual heated rival.
The Black and Gold scored the first nine points of the game, as Baylee Johnson and Oakleigh White found plenty of success inside against Hartselle's D early on.
While Hayes' squad did get a big stagnant on O throughout the game, its defense more than made up for it by constantly making the Tigers uncomfortable in their half-court sets. Most possessions ended in turnovers, while others came to a halt with contested shots that had little chance of finding the bucket.
Johnson netted a team-leading 20 points, while Christina Skinner added 10 and Hayden Short, seven. White capped off the scoring with six points.
The Bearcats will take on Holly Pond in the finale of the Yule Tide Classic Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
Hayes said he's expecting a tough battle.
"We've got to have our best effort of the season," he said. "They just manhandled a great Athens team. Scott (Adams) does a great job with his players. We are playing good team defense right now, but it's going to have to be the best you've ever seen tomorrow night if we are going to win."
% Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 136 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.