By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
The Holly Pond boys basketball team so badly wanted to join its female counterparts in the Class 3A state finals, but it wasn't to be on Wednesday at the BJCC, as Southside-Selma wound up snagging the honors by overwhelming the Broncos in the second half to earn a 60-44 semifinal victory.
Colby Adams swished a 3-pointer to give Holly Pond a seven-point lead in the opening minute of the third quarter before the Panthers went on a 25-6 tear to enter the final frame with a 48-36 advantage.
“Honestly, when that shot went in, I thought, 'Here we go. We're in good shape,” Adams said of his early third-quarter trey. “They just started shooting better than they did in the first half and they kind of took over.”
All the easy and open shots Selma missed in the opening two quarters began to fall after the break. South Regional Tournament MVP Sammarkus Jones came through with two 3's and nine of his 11 points in the second half, while 6-foot-4 forward Jeffery Mack delivered eight of his game-high 15 points in the last 16-minute stretch.
After shooting 41 percent from the field in the first half, the Broncos could only muster an 11-percent mark in the second. They missed 13 straight shots at one point in the third quarter, caved in to the Panthers' increased effort on the defensive side of the court and were never able to close the gap to less than 14 in the fourth.
“They started attacking and putting some more pressure on us,” Holly Pond coach Mitch Morris said. “For whatever reason on this night, this day, we didn't handle it as well.”
“Once they got the lead, we never could regain it. We never could get our composure. I give them credit. They did what they needed to do and it worked out for them.”
After earning Northeast Regional Tournament MVP honors this past Saturday, Bronco forward Austin Smith picked right up where he left off in the first half. The 6-foot-3 sophomore swatted away three Selma shots, pulled down three rebounds and scored six points before suffering a dislocated toe in the final minute of the second quarter.
Smith returned to the game to start the third after having the toe put back in place but was forced to head back to the locker room for more treatment later in the quarter. He received a thunderous applause from the Holly Pond student section as he jogged back to the bench nearly a minute into the fourth, adding two more blocks and a 3-pointer when Morris put him back in the ballgame.
“Having Austin not at 100 percent, that hurts us because he's a valuable player for us on the inside, outside, rebounding, blocking shots,” the coach said. “But I give him credit. He toughened up. He got out there and fought as hard as he could.”
Smith, who started his entire sophomore campaign, was understandably devastated by being forced to miss chunks of playing time to deal with his injured toe.
“It was awful,” he said. “I'm usually playing most of the game, trying to help my team with whatever I can do. Having to sit on the sideline with a dislocated toe, it hurt me personally.”
Jevon Hall, 13 points, and Robert Sullivan, 10, joined Jones and Mack as Panthers with double-digit scoring totals.
Gunter Morris led Holly Pond in scoring for the second straight game with 14 points. The junior also had 10 rebounds to complete a double-double.
Adams corralled nine points to go along with seven rebounds. Smith also pitched in nine points, as well as five blocks.
Carter Hays and Vince Clingman both scored four points, and Jacob Cahoon and Blake Black had two apiece to round out the Broncos' scorers.
Despite Wednesday's defeat, Holly Pond certainly had no reason to feel its season was a waste. The Broncos finished with a 25-6 record, which included wins against Weaver and Pisgah to claim the Northeast Regional Tournament title and advanced to the Final 48 for the first season since 1988.
“What I told our guys in the dressing room is you have nothing to be ashamed of,” Coach Morris said. “I'm tickled to death we got here.”
The Broncos will lose five seniors — Cahoon, Clingman, Black, Hays and Ben Wilson — to graduation this May, but will return three starters in Adams, Smith and Gunter Morris. With Cody Jones expected to take on an increased role, as well as a few other young players moving up from the junior varsity squad, Coach Morris believes Holly Pond will be in good shape once again next season.
“Our program is going to be OK if I don't mess them up,” he said.
With their season coming to a close one game earlier than they would've liked, the Broncos will now turn all their attention to Holly Pond's girls team, who will play in its first state title game on Saturday at 9 a.m. versus Lauderdale County.
“We wanted to be right there with them,” Morris said. “They did what they needed to do to play Saturday for the championship. We came up short, but I'm going to be here, and I'm expecting our guys to be right down here Saturday morning cheering these girls on for a state title. We're right behind them 100 percent.”
Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.