By R. Alan Richardson
The old basketball adage is, “Nothing really counts till tournament time.” The Morgan County Bulldogs made that saying come true Monday night when they took out Jackson Co. (7-15,, sixth seed) in the play-in game 53-44 to stay alive in the 2020 Region 8-AAA basketball tournament. The two teams had split in the regular season. MOCO had to turn around and play back-to-back nights Tuesday vs. Franklin County at Franklin. It will be a tall task for Jamond Sims’ team. A win there would boost the unlikely Bulldogs into the State Tournament. See next week’s issue for Tuesday’s results.
Morgan came into Monday’s contest with a 2-21 record with few giving them much of a chance to get past the first round. Sims’ boys played exceptionally well coming off an 84-67 loss in their final regular season region game to Monroe Area last Friday.
It was a fast and furious pace in the first quarter as both teams came out firing. Morgan led 18-12 after those first eight minutes of play. Malachi Hardy had six of those from nice assists by Desmond White and Ty Butler. AJ Brown and Butler each added five in the quarter.
There were four ties in the quarter at 5, 7, 9, and 12 before Morgan spurted out to the six point lead. The run was sparked by Trent Folds’ offensive rebound and put back at the 2:25 mark and two layups by Hardy. However, the 2-3 matchup zone defense may have been the difference in the quarter and in the game. Except for a couple of long three’s by Jackson Co.’s sharpshooter, the defense kept the Panthers out of rhythm the entire night.
Sims said, “That’s the best that we’ve played the matchup this year. The biggest thing was not closing out on non-shooters. We decided they only had two guys that scared us on offense.”
That mentality was on display late in the first quarter when Jackson Co. attempted to hold for the last shot of the period for the final 45 seconds. The Dogs stayed back in the zone. With 6.7 seconds remaining the Panthers drove in the lane and kicked out an errant pass for the turnover.
Hardy opened the second period on an isolation play with a great spin move and bank shot to push the lead to 20-12. Two minutes later he got a layup on another great assist from White. Back-to-back three’s from Butler and a beautiful assist from Folds to White pushed the lead to 13 at 30-17. That big run was vital in the win. The Dogs led by a score of 32-22 at the half.
The few faithful that made the trip were thinking, “Hold on boys. Hold on.” And that’s what they did. Jackson Co. made a run of their own in the third period to cut the lead to six at 39-33. This team had been tested by fire throughout a challenging season. This time they would play to win instead of playing not to lose.
The confidence grew in the final period as another big spurt put Morgan in the driver’s seat 29-26. With the game still in doubt, MOCO clung to a 42-36 lead when Butler used his quickness to pick up a steal and layup with 5:04 remaining. That was followed by a stop on defense, an assist from Brown to White, a short jumper by White, and one of two free throws by Butler. All that culminated in a 49-36 lead with 3:39 to go. They could smell blood in the water and this one was in the books.
Morgan didn’t score a bucket after the 3:05 point in the final period, but they didn’t need to. They held the ball the final two minutes of the game playing keep away from the Panthers. It was a thing of beauty for a team getting a much-needed, much-deserved win.
“Honestly, this was one of those games where the guys didn’t deviate from the game plan. With the exception of losing #22 a couple of times and not closing the driving lane on #1, they were solid on defense. I haven’t seen the ball move that freely on offense in a long time.”