Bound for Birmingham
No. 2 Russellville uses second chance to edge Muscle Shoals 67-66, advances to Final Four
HANCEVILLE – After being given a second chance, Siran Winston made sure that Tom Drake Coliseum at Wallace State wouldn't be the final curtain call for his career or No. 2 Russellville's record-setting season.
In front of the largest crowd in Northwest Regional tournament history, the senior point guard calmly drained two free throws with 3.5 seconds remaining to give the Golden Tigers (31-0) a thrilling 67-66 victory in the tournament championship game Saturday over a valiant Muscle Shoals. The Trojans (25-10) suffered its fifth loss this season to Russellville as two starters, including leading scorer Ralston Turner, who fouled out midway through the fourth quarter and finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and four steals.
"Coach (Michael Smith) told me to get to the hole, and I actually lost the ball but someone grabbed my arm. I was blessed to get the foul call and hit two free throws to win the game," said Winston, who was voted the tournament MVP and finished with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the line, five rebounds and three assists.
"I think we thought the game was over with when Ralston fouled out but they kept fighting. We relaxed, and we can't do that against playoff teams."
Russellville was eliminated by Wenonah Wednesday in the regional semifinals but was put back into the tournament after the Dragons were disqualified in a ruling made by the AHSAA Thursday. Wenonah, who was reportedly turned in by a Jefferson County rival before the sub-regionals, played a starter this season who violated the state's individual participation rule, which limits players to only six seasons per sport.
The player, believed to be high-scoring senior forward Jarret Towns, had played two basketball seasons as a seventh grader. Towns broke his leg, which caused him to miss two months of school and repeat his seventh grade year.
"We are thankful to be here because we thought our season was finished Wednesday. My birthday was Thursday and I wasn't going to be at school that day, and I was already thinking about next year," said Smith. "I met with the team in the locker room (Thursday afternoon) and told them we had a slim chance of still getting to play Saturday. I think some of them thought I was joking at first but then they started smiling because they really wanted a chance to play again."
Both teams started slow in the first quarter as they combined for almost as many turnovers (12) as points (14). Muscle Shoals opened with an 8-0 run before Russellville finally put points on the scoreboard with 2:13 left in the quarter when Jermaine Bates, who had 14 points and a team-high seven rebounds, knocked down two free throws. Terence Smith, who also had 14 points to go along with six rebounds, made a putback and Winston converted a fastbreak layup to cut the Trojans' lead to 8-6 heading into the second quarter.
With 3:30 left until halftime, Russellville made a 15-0 run sparked by Jordan Hammond, who drilled two open treys assisted by Winston, and Smith, who found Winston for a 3-pointer on the left wing and picked off an errant Muscle Shoals pass for a crowd-pleasing dunk that seemed to shift the momentum to the Golden Tigers. Brett Guzay ended Russellville's run two minutes later with a 3-pointer but the damage was done as the Golden Tigers led 32-22 at halftime.
Turner hit a short jumper to cut the lead to 38-31 with 3:36 left in the third quarter but Winston sank a 3-pointer from the right corner to start an 8-2 Russellville run. Warrick Mastin stopped it with a wide-open trey to make 46-36 leading into the fourth quarter.
The Trojans used a 7-0 run to trim the lead to 57-53 with less than four minutes remaining in the game but Turner was whistled for his fifth foul at the 4:13 mark and forward Harold Clay fouled out at 3:51 with Russellville leading 59-53.
But Mastin, who had a game-high 24 points, including 15 in the fourth, hit 3-of-4 free throws and Matt Creel had a putback to tie Russellville at 60 with 2:33 remaining. Jermaine Bates responded with a driving layup but Creel converted another offensive rebound to tie it up again at 62.
Smith, who was 0-of-8 at the line despite being the team's best free throw shooter this season, drew Mastin's fourth foul and swished two free throws to put Russellville ahead 64-62.
Mastin hit a pull-up jump shot to tie it again at 64 with 1:20 left. Cory Trapp, who went 0-of-8 from long range Wednesday and had an identical start Saturday before hitting three key 3-pointers in the fourth, hit 1-of-2 from the free throw line to give the Golden Tigers the lead.
Mastin answered with a short jumper off a high screen from Creel to give the Trojans a 66-65 lead with only seven seconds left but Winston drove into the lane, temporarily lost the ball and was fouled while regaining possession.
After Winston made both free throws, Muscle Shoals had 3.5 seconds to win the game but Creel's desperation shot fell short.
"We didn't play extremely well today and didn't hit free throws until the end. Muscle Shoals came out fighting and didn't give up," Smith said. "We need to a do a better job of blocking out, and we've got to get better at rebounding but we thank God we're here and still playing (for the state champonship).
"It's a great feeling knowing we're going to experience Birmingham and the Final Four, and we get to play my old school Eufaula. In terms of emotions, we went from zero Wednesday to a high 10 Thursday, and then this game was like a 20 on the scale."
The Golden Tigers will advance to their first Final Four appearance at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center since 2002, when Russellville lost to Anniston 79-58. Russellville will play Eufaula, the school Smith led to two girls basketball state championships in 1994 and 1997, at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Class 5A semifinals.