BY DAVID WHEELER
ABERDEEN – Want a back and forth game?
Want reluctant heroes?
Championship night at the Monroe County Tournament on Saturday had plenty of what makes these weeks special in Northeast Mississippi.
And now the Aberdeen Bulldogs have a championship trophy, thanks to playing well in the clutch to edge the Amory Panthers 60-53.
Likewise, the Hatley Lady Tigers picked up championship hardware, as a depleted squad stepped up for a 44-39 victory over the Smithville Lady Seminoles.
“Amory threw a lot of looks at us, we just had to keep adjusting,” said Aberdeen coach Roy Hazzel following his Bulldogs win in the boys championship. “And we put some pressure on them, forced some turnovers, and made our free throws.”
As most Aberdeen-Amory battles in recent years have been, this contest was a battle of wills – who would control the tempo. And for several seconds when it counted most, the Bulldogs (9-12) were able to force Amory into a fast pace, where its numerous athletes could be used to full advantage.
Forcing Amory turnovers, Aberdeen then made its way to the free throw line to score the winning points. From the time the game was tied at 51-51 with 2 minutes, 13 seconds to play, the Bulldogs were a perfect 8-for-8 from the line, with Orion Word making four of those free shots.
“Turnovers on the press were magnified at the end of the game,” said Amory coach David Easley, whose Panthers had defeated the Bulldogs on Tuesday during a regular season matchup. “And we missed too many open looks.”
Amory's last chance came with less than 30 seconds to play and trailing 56-53, but a missed three-pointer spelled the Panthers' doom.
Including his clutch free throws, Word tossed in 23 points for Aberdeen, while Charles Rainey paced Amory with 16. The scored was knotted 27-27 at the half, and Amory held a 37-36 lead through three quarters.
The finish was just as exciting in the girls contest, but the clutch plays came from unexpected sources for the Lady Tigers.
Playing the whole contest without leading scorer Tammy Parish, and with second-leading scorer Jana Pearson fouling out with more than six minutes to play, Hatley found unexpected heroes in the form of Callie Howell and Dana LaBlanc.
Trailing 39-38 with less than one minute to play, Howell's three-pointer with 45 seconds left put Hatley (17-1) in the lead for good at 41-39. A field goal and two free throws by LaBlanc in the last two minutes kept Hatley in position to win.
“We had so much adversity to overcome, that makes it a special win,” said Hatley coach Mickey Miller. “Callie's three-pointer was big, because she had been down on herself, but I still told her to take the shot if she had it.”
Smithville had raced to a 14-5 lead after the first quarter, but Hatley recovered and led 34-28 going into the final quarter.
This game featured stingy defense by both teams. And the irony here was that the Smithville defense left both Howell and LaBlanc wide open most of the night in favor of collapsing on other Hatley players.
“They had some kids step up and make some shots,” Smithville coach Jason McKay said. “We average about one good offensive spurt a game, and we hoped the one we had in the first quarter would carry us through.”
Howell led the Hatley offense with 12 points, and Porshia Polk paced Smithville with 11.