By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Mitch Morris fully expected an up-and-down affair with Pisgah in Saturday's Class 3A Northeast Regional Tournament championship.
Instead of attempting to slow down the Eagles, though, the Holly Pond coach decided to try and beat them at their own game.
By the time all 32 minutes rolled off the clock — and that doesn't count how long it took for all 99 free throws to be attempted — the Broncos were able to do just that, advancing to the Final 48 for the first time since 1988 with a wild 107-95 triumph.
Gunter Morris (31), Austin Smith (21) and Colby Adams (21) all contributed 20-plus points, and Blake Black was as helpful as ever with 13 points in 19 minutes off the bench, allowing Holly Pond to complete a 3A sweep at Jacksonville State.
“It was one of those we just hope we outlast them,” Coach Morris said. “And we did.”
The regional championship looked a lot like the Broncos' semifinal thriller against Weaver early on. After playing to a tie in all four quarters of regulation in Thursday's contest, Holly Pond (25-5) found itself all square with the Eagles (19-11) at the end of one.
The lead traded hands 11 times before Smith, Gunter Morris and Adams teamed up for a 9-2 run in the second quarter to finally put some space between the foes. Pisgah pulled within four once and five on two occasions before halftime but was never able to come any closer than seven in the third quarter. The final frame was even better for the Broncos, who enjoyed as large as a 17-point advantage midway through the quarter.
Morris, Adams and Black carried the brunt of the scoring load for Holly Pond through 24 minutes, but Smith took on the task in the last eight, going wild for 15 points in the final quarter. To top it off, the 6-foot-3 sophomore had three electrifying dunks in the last 4:20, putting the final touches on a 21-point, seven-rebound, three-block outburst.
Throw in Smith's 20 points, 16 rebounds, three blocks and three steals in the semi, and he was the clear selection for All-Northeast Regional Tournament MVP.
“My teammates got me the ball, and I just threw it down,” he said of his trio of dunks. “I knew the crowd and my teammates, they've wanted them all season, so I decided to give it to them.”
Adams and Morris were also chosen to represent the Broncos on the All-Tournament Team. Morris, who had seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and one block — and don't forget his team-high 31 points — admitted to being exhausted after the uptempo ballgame but joked that he “got a break,” referring to when he fouled out with 3:39 remaining.
Fouls and turnovers were the obvious themes of the fourth quarter, which began 72-62 in Holly Pond's favor and seemed to last an eternity with so many stoppages in play. A total of 53 free throws were taken in the last eight minutes alone, with the Broncos sinking 23 of its 31 attempts. The Eagles were just as impressive at the charity stripe in the fourth with a 19-of-22 mark.
Coach Morris had never been a part of a game with 68 turnovers and 70 fouls called. He made it clear he hopes he never will be again.
“One of the officials came by, and I said, 'If y'all will just quit blowing the whistle and let us play for about three or four minutes, that would be outstanding,” the coach recalled with a laugh. “It seemed like every 10-20 seconds, there was a whistle.”
“It was frustrating on my side because it couldn't get through enough. I'm just thankful for these guys here and the rest of our team for keeping on making enough plays. It worked out.”
With all the momentum on its side, the only question Holly Pond was left to answer late in the fourth quarter was whether it would crack 100 points.
The Broncos reached triple digits on a free throw from Black and surpassed it on two more from the senior role player on the team's ensuing possession.
“I never thought about it till we had 99, and I told Blake, 'You can get to 100,'” Adams said. “It's just a big moment for him.
“He's been a leader the whole year. He knows he doesn't always have to put up 20 points, but he does whatever he can to help the team win.”
Jacob Cahoon's nine points and seven rebounds proved to be invaluable for Holly Pond, as were Cody Jones' eight points and seven steals.
Carter Hays pulled his weight in the paint with 10 rebounds, four points, three blocks and two steals.
Vince Clingman and Ben Wilson were held scoreless but contributed four and three rebounds, respectively.
The Broncos will take the court with Southside-Selma (23-9) at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday in Birmingham. The victor will take on either Madison Academy or Greensboro for the state 3A title on Saturday.
The semifinal versus Southside will be played immediately after Holly Pond's girls finish their Final 48 matchup against Straughn.
“This is huge. It's never happened before,” Coach Morris said of both of the school's basketball programs advancing to the BJCC. “From the area (tournament), having our boys and girls play some of our games back-to-back and then down here in Jacksonville, it's been huge with our crowd. Having us both down pulling for each other, that's just extra. Now going down to Birmingham and getting to do the same thing on Wednesday, that's exciting. I can't wait.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.