If someone had told coach Jonathan Hayes one of his best players on Cullman’s girls basketball team would end up with zero points and another would pick up her fourth foul just seconds into the third quarter, he’d have probably envisioned a loss.
That’s exactly the position the Bearcats found themselves in Saturday night at Hartselle, but instead of a loss, it was Cullman that forged ahead at the end, securing a tight 25-24 victory over their heated rival to win the Class 5A, Area 15 Tournament championship.
It was the first area title of Hayes’ relatively short tenure with the Black and Gold.
“This was an absolute grind-it-out kind of win,” he said. “I’m really proud of the girls for showing tremendous heart. To do it on the road against a rival like Hartselle is special.”
Both teams were stymied on offense in the first half as neither could find their groove against the opposing team’s defense.
After doling out nine points early, Cullman senior Morgan Smith picked up her third foul midway through the second quarter, forcing her to take a seat for the remainder of the half.
The Bearcats’ defense held its own, though, and Smith’s team found itself leading 15-12 heading into the break.
“She’s everything to our team,” Hayes said. “We were able to hang just enough with her out tonight. I credit our other players for stepping up when we needed them to.”
In the third quarter, Smith’s return was short lived, as the Bearcat forward picked up an offensive foul just seconds into the frame.
With Smith out and Baylee Johnson being heavily guarded, Hartselle was able to make a small run and take a 20-17 advantage into the fourth quarter.
Smith returned to the court for the final eight minutes and wasted no time making her presence known, scoring four points, while coming up with a couple of steals to turn the tables and give Cullman a three-point cushion of its own.
“When I was on the bench in the third, I was just shaking,” Smith said. “I was so nervous, but I trusted my team to make plays. When I got back in there, I tried to make plays and help them out.”
Hartselle retook the lead with under two minutes to play on a layup from Shaneal Johnson.
After a Bearcat turnover and a missed shot from the Tigers, Hayes’ club was given new life with 32 seconds to go.
On the ensuing possession, Smith found Oakleigh White in the paint, where she was fouled and headed to the free-throw line with a chance to give her team the lead once again.
White drained both attempts, giving Cullman a slim, one-point advantage with 18 seconds to go.
“Those free throws were enormous for us,” Hayes added. “It was great execution on the play, and I’m so proud of Oakleigh for making them. That was great to see.”
Hartselle failed to scored on its next possession, but a Bearcat turnover on the inbounds pass gave the Tigers one more chance with under five seconds left in regulation.
Unfortunately for Hartselle, Cullman is no stranger to close wins, as the Bearcats made one last stand as time expired before jumping in jubilation to celebrate the victory.
“We have been down several times late this year,” Hayes said. “It just doesn’t seem to phase these girls. It’s not like we drew it up, but it works. It was a great team victory.”
Smith closed out the game with 13 points, while Christina Skinner, White and Hayden Short each corralled four. Johnson, although held scoreless, still pitched in with six assists and three steals.
“This win means a lot to us,” Smith said. “It feels great.”
Cullman’s victory, which improved its record to 17-10, sets up a sub-regional game against Athens next Thursday night at home. A time for tip-off has yet to be determined.
% Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 258 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.