By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
BIRMINGHAM – On most nights when the Sand Rock dynamic duo of senior point guard Jacob StClair and senior guard Kaden Justice are scoring, the Wildcats are in pretty good shape.
But on Monday night against No. 9 Aliceville in the Class 2A state basketball semifinals, the Yellow Jackets were able to neutralize their scoring outbursts by going to the free-throw line so many times and making those shots, especially down the stretch.
Aliceville went 30-of-41 from the charity stripe for the game, including 19-of-24 in the fourth quarter, in a 73-63 decision that ended the Wildcats’ season at 22-11.
“It’s hard to catch a team when they don’t miss free throws,” Sand Rock coach John Blackwell said. “I think we had watched seven or eight games altogether with film and everything and watched them in person. I’ve not seen them shoot free throws nor outside shots nowhere near that good. It didn’t seem to matter who we fouled, they just hit free throws.”
The game not only marked the end of eight Sand Rock seniors’ basketball careers, but their head coach as well.
Blackwell announced during the post-game press conference it was his final game as head coach of the Wildcats, ending a 28-year head coaching career that also includes the Glencoe girls program.
“I was asked five years ago to take this program over,” Blackwell said. “I didn’t go to Sand Rock to coach. I went there to retire. I’d been a girls coach. The coach resigned, and I was asked if I was interested in coaching. These (senior) guys were seventh graders at the time. I saw a desire in this age group that made me want to coach the next few years. I told them when I got hired, I’d coach until they graduate or they run me off.
“In my 28 years of coaching, there’s nobody I’d rather go out with than these group of guys right here. They’ve brought something back to Sand Rock that hasn’t been there in a long time, and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
The Wildcats may not have gotten the storybook ending they wanted Monday night, but they fought Aliceville (24-1) dead even through the first half. The score was tied at 21 after one, and 32 at halftime.
The Yellow Jackets managed to maintain a four-point lead heading into the fourth at 48-44, but free throws down the stretch proved crucial.
“I think it surprised them,” Aliceville coach Christopher Walker said. “I know we can make them once we decide to lock in. Jatavius (Colvin) started off making his up front and of course we sent Tyquan (Simon) late in the game because we know he’s a clutch shooter at the free-throw line. For the most part in the big games that’s what it’s going to come down to.”
Simon topped Aliceville with 18 points, including an 8-of-10 free-throw performance. He also had four assists, two steals and two rebounds. Colvin collected 17 points, including three 3-pointers, and was 10-of-16 from the free-throw line,. He also had10 rebounds, three steals and an assist.
Tyjarian Williams also had 17 points and eight rebounds. Keanthony Wilder finished with nine points, including 6-of-6 free throws, with five rebounds.
StClair led Sand Rock with 33 points, including an 11-of-14 performance from the free-throw line. He also accounted for five rebounds, two steals and two assists. Justice rang for 24 points and grabbed nine boards.
No other Wildcat managed to score more than two points.
“I just love this game. It really hurts to see it come to an end with Coach Blackwell, my uncle as a coach and all the coaches who put in so much work,” Justice said. “I just wish we all could’ve done more. We all did so much. They’re a great team, but I will forever think it should’ve been us (playing for a championship).”
“We all come together and bonded really well,” StClair added. “We had a great last run. I wouldn’t want to trade it for anything.”
“We fought hard. We battled. I couldn’t be more proud of my guys,” Blackwell said. “I think the way we played showed it wasn’t by luck that we got here. We’ve got a good basketball team too. We just happened to run into a team that happened to be hot tonight.”
Aliceville will take on St. Luke’s Episcopal for the 2A title on Friday at 10:45 a.m. St. Luke’s held off Mars Hill Bible 63-56 in Monday’s other state semifinal.