E.A. Sports Today

Tough way to end

Anniston plays J.O. Johnson tight, but a ‘couple minor mistakes’ late bring heartbreaking end to Ware’s illustrious tenure

Anniston guard Tray Croft is consoled on the floor after his potential winning 3-pointer hit off the rim leaving the Bulldogs two points short of J.O. Johnson. Below, Croft looks to make a move on JOJ's Jarius Grayson. On the cover, the loss brought the end of coach Schuessler Ware's 19-year tenure. (Photos by Kristen Stringer/Krisp Pics Photography)

Anniston guard Tray Croft is consoled on the floor after his potential winning 3-pointer hit off the rim leaving the Bulldogs two points short of J.O. Johnson. Below, Croft looks to make a move on JOJ’s Jarius Grayson. On the cover, the loss brought the end of coach Schuessler Ware’s 19-year tenure. (Photos by Kristen Stringer/Krisp Pics Photography)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE — Schuessler Ware always knew this day would come. But can one really prepare for the end, especially the way it came Tuesday?

Ware’s illustrious 19-year tenure as Anniston’s basketball coach came to a crushing end when the Bulldogs lost a game they very much could’ve won, falling to top-ranked J.O. Johnson 45-43 in the Class 5A Northeast Regional final one step short of the Four Four.

“I think we should have won,” Ware said opening his final post-game news conference as the Bulldogs’ head coach. “A couple minor mistakes right there at the end … it was our ballgame. All we had to do was be patient and stay with the game plan.”

One of the bigger plays late in the game was senior DeQuan Ross’ missed layup that would have put the Bulldogs (26-5) up four with 1:09 to play.

From that point, Grayson hit two free throws with 43 seconds left to tie the game, and then Tray Croft was called on a soft foul that sent Jaguars start junior John Petty to the line with 20.1 seconds left. Petty hit both free throws to put the Jaguars in front.

“I saw there was nobody right there to contest the shot, but out of my peripheral vision I saw, I think, No. 10 (Jarius Grayson) coming, so I tried to extend my arms out,” Ross said. “I was really worried about my shot being blocked, but I was really trying to draw a foul. Nothing went my way.”

The Bulldogs worked their way to a final shot. It ended up, expectedly, in Croft’s hands. Croft, who scored in a number of nifty ways during the game, put up a 3-pointer from the top of the key that would’ve given the Bulldogs the lead, but it hit the rim and bounded away.

“I should’ve went to tie the ballgame up instead of trying to win it,” Croft said. “It was just a mistake I made, but then again I should have hit the shot to win the game … I just wanted to end the game right there.”

Ware’s retirement from Anniston was confirmed during the Calhoun County Tournament and effective Feb. 1, but he was committed to staying with the team until the completion of its season. The hope was it would end in Birmingham for a shot at a walk-off state championship.

Because of the circumstances, guard Hakeem Ross said the Tuesday’s ending felt twice as bad as any other loss.

“The only thing we wanted to do was get him back to Birmingham,” he said. “Give him one more state championship before he leaves.”

As it is, Ware will take fond memories of state titles in 2002 and 2009 as part of his 422-166 overall record.

“Coach knew we were working hard every day trying to get him a ring,” DeQuan Ross said. “We knew his last game was going to come sooner or later, but we didn’t know it was going to come now. It was really heartbreaking. This is the worst time I have felt throughout my whole high school years.”

J.O. Johnson was the game Ware had been wanting for the longest time and was convinced the winner would win the Class 5A state title. The Bulldogs had the Jaguars on the run most of the game. They bottled up Petty, holding him to three field goals and eight points, but just fell short in the end.

The game had nine lead changes and 10 ties. Neither team led by more than five points.

“We didn’t want them to come in our backyard and beat the fire out of us like they did last year,” Ware said, his voice booming. “The guys answered the challenge. They played ball. They left it on the floor and although I think we should’ve won, we played good overall.”

And that made going out into that good night for the last time a little more palatable.

“You want to go out with a fight,” Ware said. “You don’t want to give it to them; you want to leave it on the floor. As long as you do all you can do and you left it on the floor and you played them better than anybody whose going to play them (you can be satisfied).”

J.O. Johnson 45, Anniston 43

J.O. JOHNSON (27-5) – Brandon Crosby 3-4 0-0 6, Jarius Grayson 3-8 3-4 10, Justin Hopkins 8-9 3-7 19, Devonte Lanier 0-0 0-0 0, John Petty 3-11 2-3 8, Brandon McCarver 1-3 0-0 2, Jaquavis Horton 0-0 0-0 0, Brandon Nicholas 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-38 8-14 45.

ANNISTON (26-5) – Marrio Dobbins 0-2 2-2 2, Tray Croft 5-12 5-6 17, Willie Thomas 0-4 0-0 0, DeQuan Ross 4-12 0-0 8, Chris Beard 1-2 0-0 2, Hakeem Ross 4-5 0-0 10, Davion Tippins 2-5 0-0 4. Totals 16-42 7-8 43.

J.O. Johnson 15 10 14 6 — 45
Anniston 11 14 12 6 — 43

3-point goals: J.O. Johnson 1-12 (Crosby 0-1, Grayson 1-2, Perry 0-5, McCarver 0-1, Nicholas 0-3); Anniston 4-15 (Croft 2-6, Thomas 0-1, D. Ross 0-6, H. Ross 2-2). Rebounds: J.O. Johnson 25 (Lanier 9); Anniston 25 (D. Ross 8, Tippins 7). Fouled out: Thomas. Total fouls: J.O. Johnson 10, Anniston 13. Officials: Brian McCollum, Ken Barnett, Thomas Owens.

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