SPORTS >> Falcons’ loss to Lions ‘bittersweet’
Leader sports editor
North Pulaski lost a game and won a championship on Thursday night.
Needing a win or a loss by five points or fewer at McClellan, the Falcons achieved the latter when Aaron Cooper stepped to the line and made two free throws with 8.5 seconds remaining in the Lions’ 55-51 victory over North Pulaski at Lions Gym. By virtue of the Falcons’ 77-71 win over McClellan on Feb. 17, they earned a No. 1 seed from the 5A-Southeast heading into the state tournament next week at Alma. Both McClellan and North Pulaski finished 13-1 in league play.
“It’s bittersweet,” said North Pulaski head coach Ray Cooper. “Right now, the guys aren’t throwing a party in there. We wanted to win the game.”
Winning the game seemed an unlikely possibility when the Lions made six consecutive free throws — while the Falcons were missing seven straight — to take a 52-40 lead midway through the final period.
But North Pulaksi (22-6) finally began to get dividends from their pressure defense, cashing three consecutive steals into 9-0 run. Aaron Coopers’s steal led to a Jerald Blair breakaway to whittle the lead to 52-49 with 2:10 left. After the Lions made 1 of 2 free throws, Daquan Bryant’s lay-up at the other end rolled tantalizingly around the rim before rolling out with 1:38 left. Mike Bradley extended the lead to six again with a soft turnaround 6-footer in the lane and, after Cooper misfired from beyond the arc, McClellan’s Rick Allen went to the line with 22 seconds and a chance to push the victory margin beyond the six that would secure the Lions the conference title.
Allen missed both and Cooper was fouled on a drive through the lane with 8.5 seconds.
“I wasn’t really that worried because he’s kind of spoiled me,” said Ray Cooper of son Aaron’s free-throw shooting. “He always seems to make them, especially in the fourth quarter.”
Ray Cooper said that, while the final margin was in his mind, it was not a factor in his players’ minds.
“We hadn’t even talked about the tiebreaker,” he said. “But I called a time out (late in the game) and I told them we had to lose by six or less and they looked at me like, we’re going to win. So that never entered the equation in their mind and that was a good thing.”
McClellan coach Chris Threatt agreed that, while his team was aware of the tiebreak scenario, it never factored into strategy.
“I wasn’t going to be up by three points and then lose the game trying to be up by seven,” he said. “We were just going to play the game. Because the competition is more important than the seeding.”
It was a high-charged atmosphere with the arena full and with a healthy contingent of Falcon faithful on hand. In the end, McClellan’s superior size and intensity proved the difference. The Lions blocked nine shots in the game at North Pulaski and added seven more to that total on Thursday.
Their defense also limited the Falcons’ looks, especially from Daquan Bryant and Aaron Cooper. While Cooper finished with 19 points, he made only two three-pointers and one of those was from nearly 28 feet. Bryant scored only eight points.
It was an up-and-down affair with both teams beating the other down court for early fast-break buckets. Two consecutive breakaway baskets by Kyron Ware had North Pulaski ahead 16-13 early in the second period. But Jacoby Vaughn made 5 of 6 free throws over a 40-second span and the Lions never trailed again.
Ware, who scored eight of his 14 points in the second quarter, kept the Falcons in the hunt with two more fast-break baskets late in the period, but Crandon Isaac sandwiched a breakaway jam and a buzzer-beating runner around Allen’s three-pointer and North Pulaski found itself trailing 34-25 at intermission.
“We didn’t play well overall in the first half,” Cooper said. “I think we got caught up in the hype and were scattered. We turned the ball over more than we have all season. Our defensive intensity was terrible and our rebounding was bad. I couldn’t find a whole lot of things that were good.”
Allen added two more three-pointers early in the third period and even after a technical foul for six players on the court netted Cooper two free throws, the Falcons still trailed 46-35 after three periods.
McClellan outrebounded North Pulaski 39-34. Bryant pulled down a team-high seven for the Falcons. Bryant also had a pair of steals and two blocks.
The Falcons made only 2 of 13 three-pointers and just 19 of 46 overall. Their 11-of-21 free-throw shooting especially had Cooper scratching his head.
“Normally, we’ve been real solid all year,” he said. “And the guys that were missing them are guys that are usually our best shooters.
“I thought all night long, though, (McClellan) played with more energy and more urgency. They brought it to us. I don’t know what we were expecting, but it took us a while to adjust to how tough they were playing us.”
Threatt said he hopes the two teams will get a chance down the road to settle the tie.
“I hope we can each win three games and play again,” he said. “Some teams like to shy away from competition. I think the more tough situations you’re in, the better seasoned and better prepared your team becomes.”
MCCLELLAN GIRLS 55,
NORTH PULASKI 26
The Lady Falcons concluded a disappointing season with a one-sided loss. Laura Dortch led North Pulaski with 10 points while Kayla Springs added five.