By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
With a little more than a minute remaining in Wednesday’s quarterfinal between West Point and Cold Springs, Wesley Smith sprung sky-high in the corner, swatted an Eagle 3-pointer out of bounds and circled around in the same direction as the ball, smiling and shaking his head left and right as he strutted toward his Warrior teammates.
No, Triston Chambers, your trey cannot be taken, and no, Cold Springs, your comeback can’t be completed. Not on this night. The reigning Cullman County champs aren’t going anywhere yet.
West Point built up enough of a lead with an explosive start and sank all 10 of its fourth-quarter free throws, countering a furious second-half rally by Chayse Elliott and the Eagles to earn a 71-59 victory.
Providing a momentum-swinging block in crunch time felt pretty good for Smith.
“Yeah, it did,” the oft-fiery senior said with a grin. “I did my best to not let my emotions show right there, I’m not going to lie.”
The Warriors (16-8) could do no wrong, and Cold Springs (13-8) had trouble doing much right in the first half.
Seemingly every shot West Point took in the opening 16 points — from near and far — found the bottom of the net. Josh Looney was sharp from behind the arc with two 3-pointers, and Kris Keller, Jordan McKenzie, Tristan Dubberly and Ryder Jones all nailed one, while Nick Nuss and Smith combined for 10 points to give the Warriors a comfortable 41-20 cushion at the break.
“We came out strong and they came out a little lazy, I guess you’d say,” Smith said. “We came out running down the court real fast.”
Looney credited the fast start to the massive amounts of shooting drills his coach had his West Point squad do in preparation for the county tournament.
“Coach (Randy) Jones put us through it this week,” he said. “We practiced so hard.”
No lead is ever safe when the Eagles’ Elliott suits up for the opposing team, and West Point nearly figured that out the hard way in the second half.
Carrying Cold Springs on his back, the UAH signee grabbed steals, made layups, fought for rebounds, dove for loose balls and sank treys from well behind the arc to give the Eagles a fighting chance. Layne Rice joined in the fun by knocking down a 3-pointer, shrinking the deficit to just 10 early in the fourth quarter.
Elliott brought the score within 10 in two other instances after the Warriors had begun to pull away again. The Cold Springs’ senior sensation finished with a game-high 32 points, 26 of which came in the second half.
“He gets his shots, that’s for sure,” Smith said of Elliott. “A lot of times, he’s unstoppable when he’s driving and shooting. He even hit a 40-footer back here. You just do your best to help off on him.”
West Point enjoyed an extremely balanced scoring effort with seven players racking up at least eight points. Looney’s 14 were tops, while Smith and Nuss also cracked double digits with 12 and 10, respectively. Ryder Jones, Dubberly and Keller all posted nine points, and McKenzie had eight.
Rice joined Elliott in double figures for the Eagles with 13 points. Chambers tallied eight points, Josh Freeman, four, and Mason Harris, two.
The fifth-seeded Warriors advance to play No. 1 Holly Pond on Friday at 6:15 p.m. The rivals split the season series with neither game decided by more than five points.
Smith had no trouble admitting the Broncos are talented, but Looney is still confident West Point can get the job done.
“We’ve just got to play defense, and we’ll win,” he said.
The Warriors are loaded with seven seniors who have all been around while the team has reached the county tournament title game the last three seasons. Looney wants to make it four.
“Every year, we’ve made it to the championship, and I don’t want it to end my senior year,” he said.
As the defending champs, Smith has a different set of motives for wanting to secure back-to-back crowns.
“We’re going to show them it wasn't a fluke last year,” he said.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.