(Photo by Brent Shipman, Staff)
HAYTI -- Despite the fact that Hunter Turner went into the final seconds of Thursday's Class 2, District 1 semifinals without a field goal, the Hayti Indians entrusted the senior with the most important shot of their season.
With the Indians knotted up with Portageville and inbounding the ball on their own baseline with 3.6 seconds remaining, Keenon Norris kicked the ball out to the right side of the arc where Turner was waiting for an open shot.
Launched just before the buzzer, Turner's shot was spot on to give his team a 49-46 upset win over the top-seeded Bulldogs.
"We figured that they were going to cover J.T.," Hayti head coach Phillip Taylor said of his team's big man Jerome Thomas. "Hunter hadn't really taken many shots and I knew they knew he was the shooter because every time he was in the game they were yelling it.
"We set up a play for JT to come off a double screen and the guys sucked down so we kicked it to Hunter. You have to let your shooter shoot so he let it fly and it went in the hole."
Taylor's suspicions were correct as Portageville head coach Jason Irby admitted that defending against the Indians leading scorer, Thomas, was a high priority when forming a strategy during Hayti's timeout directly before the inbounds.
"We were trying to double team Thomas," Portageville head coach Jason Irby said of the Indians big man. "We felt like they'd try to lob it or get it to him in some way. We did a good job on him and unfortunately left the best shooter on the floor open and he made us pay.
"It's not exactly how we had it drew up as far as leaving him open, but it's how it ended up."
It was only seconds before the Bulldogs appeared to have swung momentum their way. Trailing by six points, at 44-38, with 1:16 to play, Portageville started to close the gap when Dominique Walker scored a bucket in the paint.
With the Indians trying to stall, Walker stole the ball near mid-court before Dion Foster scored on a put back while picking up a foul. In hitting the ensuing free throw Foster closed the Bulldogs back to within a point, at 44-43 with 1:05 to play.
After a layup by Maurion Newbill pushed Hayti back up by three points, Portageville came back down the court looking to tie things up with 23 seconds remaining.
Though they'd miss their first shot, the Bulldogs retained possession and passed out to Jansen Darst waiting at the top of the arc. Darst let loose a high arcing 3-point shot that banked off the backboard to tie the game at 46-46 with only 15 seconds to play.
Hayti came back down and tried to score in the paint before keeping possession when the ball was knocked out of bounds to set up Turner's buzzer-beater.
"It came down to who the had the ball at the end," Irby said. "I was proud of the way our kids battled. We made some plays at the end and got a lucky three there banking it in, but it happens.
"(Turner) made a tough shot, a long range three like that with time running down. You just have to tip your hat to him as far that being a big time shot to put his team in the district finals."
Before the late theatrics, it was a big third quarter that allowed the Indians to take a one-point advantage into the fourth. Down 18-13 at the break, Hayti trailed by as many as 11 points early in the second half when the Bulldogs opened up on a 10-5 run in the first three minutes of the third quarter.
After a quick timeout Hayti responded with a free throw and pair of quick buckets from Thomas to kick-start a 16-4 run to end the quarter up 33-32. The Bulldogs took the lead for the last time on a bucket in the pain from Denzell Simmons with 5:40 left in the fourth.
Scoring on their ensuing drive, however, the Indians didn't trail in the final five minutes of the game.
"Normally we want to transition all the time and run as fast as we can, but we felt is was best for us to sit back and it was almost like a lull," Taylor said of his team's first half slump. "We wanted to force them to shoot outside and not use their big men. We did a pretty good job of it, the only problem is we didn't score on our end.
"I talked to coach Irby at halftime and they shot 17 percent and we shot 26. So it's not like we were really lightning up on either end. But luckily we came out in the third quarter and the spark hit at the right time. We made a run and was able to get in our transition game. We just scored when we had too."
With both teams struggling offensively in the first quarter, Portageville was able to come out of a 9-9 tie early in the second frame and score nine-straight points. It was a 3-pointer from Jermel Covington at the buzzer that kept the Indians within six points heading into the locker room.
"This group of kids has worked hard all year for me and just done the right things," Irby said. "As a coach that's really priceless. They'd come in the weight room and they worked hard. They don't miss practice and they're a good bunch of kids.
"Just offensively tonight we were terrible. I think we shot 24 percent from the field and that's just not going to win very many big games."
Leading the Bulldogs, Walker had a game-high 21 points while Foster finished second on the team with seven. Hayti's Thomas ended the night with 14 points to tie Newbill for the team lead.
PORTAGEVILLE (46) -- Jansen Darst 6, Dion Foster 7, Dominique Walker 21, Zack Birdwell 4, Denzell Simmons 5, Daniel Allen 1, Ben Story 2. FG 17, FT 9-14, F 18. (3-pointers: Darst 2, Walker 1. Fouled out: Birdwell.)
HAYTI (49) -- Kenon Norris 9, Hunter Turner 5, Jerome Thomas 14, Demetrius Luster 4, Maurion Newbill 14, Jermel Covington 3. FG 19, FT 9-24, F 17. (3-pointers: Turner 1, Covington 1. Fouled out: none.)