CAPSHAW — With its season on the line against its biggest rival and Andrew Winfrey joining them on the bench, Cullman's boys basketball team had all the motivation it needed in Friday's Class 5A, Area 15. Tournament semifinal against West Point.
The Bearcats blindsided the Warriors from the get-go, jumping out to an overwhelming lead after eight minutes of play and holding on tightly the rest of the way to put an exclamation point on a 61-42 victory.
Lawson Schaffer piled on the points from all over the court, Lane Donaldson was silky smooth from behind the arc and Troy Forrest imposed his will down low, allowing the Black and Gold to enjoy a comfortable 23-4 advantage at the end of the first quarter and 40-16 cushion by halftime.
Like that, the script was flipped. The squad with the three-game losing streak coming in was well on its way to ousting its bitter rival, which had headed to East Limestone with a three-game run in the opposite direction.
“We just wanted to come out with defensive intensity, move the ball on offense and get open shots,” said Donaldson, who scored 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the 3-point line. “Coach told us to drive it, shoot it or sit the bench, so that's what we did.”
Cullman was up by so much late that it was able to put in a few underplayed reserves in the third and fourth quarters, drawing cheers from the starters on the bench whenever they made plays on either side of the court.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, however, the entire Bearcat (19-10) roster was left to celebrate the statement win over a West Point (20-10) bunch that had bested them two times earlier in the season.
“They're a county team, and we're a city school,” said Schaffer, who scored a game-high 17 points. “You've always got to beat them. They're a good team, though, with great players and a good group of guys.”
Winfrey, who has continued to recover at a remarkable pace since suffering severe injuries in a car accident one year ago this month, led the Black and Gold onto the court, where the boys surrounded him for a quick prayer before pre-game warmups. Coaches then cleared a folding chair in the middle of the bench so Winfrey could be right in the thick of the action with his friends and teammates.
Donaldson called Winfrey Cullman's inspiration, and Schaffer said having him on the floor meant everything to the team.
“He's a heck of an athlete, and I'd do anything for him,” Schaffer said of Winfrey. “I'm just blessed to be out there. I just wish he could be out there with us.”
Forrest nearly joined Schaffer and Donaldson in double figures with nine points, while freshman Seth Swalve came through with six and Houston Turner, five. Keaton Dean and Lee Mattox contributed four points apiece; Austin Beck, two; and Jason McAfee and Auston Neal, one each.
“If we play as a team, nobody can stop us,” Schaffer said. “We're a great unit. All 13 of us know what we're doing. We believe in our coach (Bobby Meyer), everything he says and everything he does.”
Kris Keller picked up nine of his team-high 13 points in the second half, while fellow Warriors Ryder Jones and Wesley Smith both concluded the night with eight points. Nick Nuss dropped in six points; Riley Voce, three; and Tristan Dubberly and Josh Looney, two apiece.
The Bearcats can now turn their attention to Monday's area championship against East Limestone, which advanced earlier in the night with a too-close-for-comfort 64-57 win over Hartselle.
Cullman failed to beat the area host in either regular season meeting but is confident it can come out on top at 6 p.m. on Monday.
“We just want a good win and to play with the same defensive intensity,” Schaffer said.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.