Spreading the wealth
Mike Self, FCT Sports Editor
RUSSELLVILLE – Anyone hoping to pinpoint the driving force behind Russellville's impressive start need look no further than one particular sequence late in the fourth quarter of Tuesday night's game against Brooks.
With the Golden Tigers trailing by one, sophomore forward Jermaine Bates rebounded a Brooks miss and-instead of looking for junior point guard Siran Winston-took it upon himself to start the fast break.
Bates dribbled up the middle of the floor and then passed to junior guard Cory Trapp on the right wing. Trapp could have taken (and quite possibly made) a highly-contested three-pointer, but instead he chose to put the ball on the floor and penetrate.
He drove toward the basket and then passed the ball back to Bates, who by this time had gravitated to one of his favorite spots on the floor, the short corner. Bates, an explosive leaper, dribbled left into the middle of the lane, where he could have elevated and attempted a difficult shot with defenders in his face.
Instead, Bates kicked the ball out to the left wing, where Winston promptly drained a wide-open three-pointer to give Russellville the lead for good. The Golden Tigers held on to win 58-56, running their record to 6-0 and clinching a spot opposite Florence (4-9) in last night's semifinals of the TimesDaily Classic.
The play must have brought a smile to the face of Russellville head coach Michael Smith, who is trying to instill in his relatively young team (one senior, two juniors, a sophomore and a freshman in the starting lineup) that a run-and-gun approach doesn't justify poor shot selection. So far, they seem to be getting the message.
"We want to move the ball around until we get a quality shot, and we want the person with the ball to take that shot with confidence," Smith said after the win over Brooks, which ran his record to 21-9 since arriving at Russellville prior to last season. "We have to continue working on that, because we didn't do a very good job of it early in the game tonight. A lot of what we get is going to be off dribble penetration. If another defender helps, we want to kick the ball out to an open shooter. If nobody comes over to help, we'll shoot a layup."
Smith seems to have the perfect complement of players to fit that system. Typically, the Golden Tigers have five virtually interchangeable players on the floor who can all handle the ball and shoot the three. All five starters are averaging double figures in scoring.
Winston uses his superior quickness to create off the dribble while Trapp and senior forward Justin Thorne lurk on the perimeter, waiting like marksmen to squeeze the trigger and unleash a seemingly endless barrage of three-pointers. (Each made three treys in the first half of Tuesday's game, and Trapp has already made nine threes in a game twice this season.)
Naturally, opposing teams do everything they can to lock down on Russellville's perimeter shooters. If they don't, the results can be lethal, as evidenced by the Golden Tigers' 16 three-pointers in a season-opening 91-44 rout of Haleyville and 18 treys in last Friday's 97-63 scorching of Colbert County.
"We haven't seen a whole lot of zone," said Smith, knowing full well he probably won't the rest of the season. "Most teams play us straight man-to-man and try to extend out on our shooters. When that happens, you have to have guys who can create their own shots without coming off screens."
That's where Bates and Smith's son Terence, a freshman forward, come in. Both are athletic slashers who do the majority of their damage from 15 feet and in. That description also fits junior reserve Caleb Mitchell, whose steal and two free throws with less than two minutes remaining helped Russellville hold on against Brooks.
Freshman Nate Dunstan and sophomore Andy Pounders provide Smith with a much-needed post presence, and reserve guard Jordan Hammond gives the Golden Tigers another perimeter threat.
"We've been playing really well together," Michael Smith said. "We've played six games, and we've probably had three or four different leading scorers. We're getting contributions from everybody, even if it's only for a minute or two. When you're winning, the players are a lot more likely to buy into what you're trying to teach them."
Prior to Tuesday's game, the Golden Tigers had been winning in rather convincing fashion. Through their first five games, they averaged nearly 84 points while holding their opponents to just 58 per contest.
Brooks (7-3) was able to control the tempo on Tuesday, slowing the game down and limiting Russellville's shot attempts.
"Brooks did an outstanding job tonight," Smith said. "They were patient on offense, and they didn't turn the ball over a lot. Our guys have to understand that against a team like Brooks, we're not going to have as many possessions. The number of shot attempts we get is going to be way down. We just have to be patient and not try to force anything."
Brooks' strategy very nearly resulted in a win. The Lions led 52-47 midway through the fourth quarter when Smith called timeout and urged his team to stay calm.
"I just told our guys that we didn't need to panic," he said. "We were only down five, and we didn't need to get it all back on one possession. There was plenty of time left. In a tight game like that, you just have to stay focused and execute even better."
Russellville rose to the challenge as Bates nailed a three-pointer to jumpstart an 11-2 run that gave the Golden Tigers a 58-54 lead. Brooks trimmed the lead to two on a layup by Tyler Corum with 27 seconds remaining and then had a chance to tie after a turnover by Russellville, but Caleb Graham's 19-footer missed as time expired.
The Golden Tigers escaped with a win that proved two things. First, Smith's squad demonstrated that they are capable of grinding out a win in a low-scoring game. Secondly, the Golden Tigers offered further proof that they don't necessarily need a huge night from Trapp–the team's leading scorer at 20 points per game–to beat a quality opponent.
Trapp was held scoreless in the second half against Brooks and finished with just 11 points, but Thorne had a team-high 14 and Winston scored all 13 of his points after halftime to pick up the slack.
On December 12 at Lawrence County, Trapp was held to a season-low 10 points, but Bates stepped up with a season-high 22 and Winston added 19 as the Golden Tigers cruised to an 85-71 win.
Russellville put its unbeaten record on the line Thursday night against Florence. The winner of that game will play tonight in the tournament finals.
The last time Russellville won the TimesDaily Classic, in the 2001-02 season, they ended up playing in the Class 5A state title game.
Before this year's Golden Tigers can even think about a deep postseason run, they must first find a way to survive one of the toughest areas in the state. (Decatur, Athens and Muscle Shoals join Russellville in Area 16.)
"We really try to remind our guys that the most important thing is how we perform in our area games," Smith said. "We're hoping that winning some of these early games can help prepare us to play well once the area games start."
In the meantime, Russellville's objective is simple.
"We just need to keep winning," Smith said.