E.A. Sports Today

Survive, advance

Sacred Heart did both, answering another postseason challenge to hold off Cedar Bluff in regional semifinals

Sacred Heart’s Diante Wood (1) brings the ball up court against Cedar Bluff’s pressure. Wood scored a game-high 30 points. On the cover, Murdock Simmons (4) got the Cardinals going with a big first half. (Photos by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE — Even after winning three state championships Sacred Heart doesn’t expect an easy road to the title.

This past week the Cardinals have faced a challenge to their position twice and both times stared it down like a seasoned gunslinger of the Old West.

On Thursday night, what looked to be an easy victory in the Class 1A Northeast Regional after two and a half quarters turned into a battle, but once again the Cardinals turned back the challenge, beating Cedar Bluff 74-63.

“You’ve got to take your hat off to Cedar Bluff because they went right at us, but I’m glad our team rallied back together and they took control of the game,” Sacred Heart coach Ralph Graves said.

The Cardinals (20-10) now play Decatur Heritage (28-3) Monday 8:15 p.m. at Jacksonville State for a fifth straight trip to the Class 1A Final Four. Their winning streak against instate 1As is 58 in a row.

But they’ve gotten tougher and tougher to get. Spring Garden took the Cardinals to the wire in last Saturday’s Area 10 tournament championship game. Khalil Watkins hit a 3-pointer with less than 30 seconds left to give them the lead and then they held on as the Panthers missed two shots on separate possessions in the final five seconds.

On this night, behind red-hot first-half shooting, they opened a 23-point lead on Cedar Bluff with 6:25 left in the third quarter. And then they lost their defensive focus, giving up layups and open shots. The Tigers (19-11) took full advantage of it to cut the margin to five in the third quarter and four with more than seven minutes to play.

At that point Diante Wood took over. The Alabama signee scored the next four points and got assertive inside to help the Cardinals put it away. He finished with 30 points, 18 in the second half.

“I think we answered it pretty good,” Wood said. “A lot people think if it’s a close game with Sacred Heart they get worried and stuff but … we just stick together and we play through it.”

“We don’t panic,” Murdock Simmons said. “We don’t have to speed up and try to match if they hit a 3. We just slow down and play our game.”

Simmons had the hot hand early, scoring 14 of his 23 in the first quarter and 19 in the first half. The senior forward who gives the Cardinals a Dennis Rodman enforcer quality without all the tats and piercings hit was 8-for-8 from the field in the first half as the Cardinals were an eye-popping 20 of 24 from the floor. At one point they hit 11 in a row and 15 of 16.

“I didn’t know I was going to score that many points, I was just trying to help my team,” Simmons said.

It’s not the first time this year Simmons had gotten off to a fast start. Three times in the first two weeks this season he went for 12 against Faith Christian, 19 against Donoho and 11 against Jacksonville Christian in the first quarter.

The last time he played in Jacksonville State’s arena he left with a boot on his foot to protect the ankle he injured in the Calhoun County Tournament title game. He only returned to the floor in the area tournament title game that was so close.

“He’s a gamer,” Graves said of the senior guard who gives the Cardinals a Dennis Rodman enforcer quality without the tats and piercings. “When the game comes on he can make plays and his size is deceptive. He has really quick hands, really quick feet and plays really well around the basket.”

Michael Croft and Davion Fife led Cedar Bluff’s comeback. Croft has 11 of his 28 in the third quarter and Fife had seven of his 21.

The Monday night matchup between Sacred Heart and Decatur Heritage is a rematch of last year’s regional final the Cardinals won 75-49 with a big second half. They broke it open with a three-minute 20-0 run at the start of the third quarter.

While the Eagles espouse a one-game-a-time approach, junior center Noah Boler has been looking forward to this matchup since the start of the season. The game has the makings of a classic inside battle between Wood and the Eagles’ 6-8 Boler.

Wood had 21 points in the game last year, while Boler had 12 points and 10 rebounds.

“I’ve been looking to play Sacred Heart since Day One of this year, because of last year,” Boler said. “Last year I was less aggressive against him. I was kind of timid because Sacred Heart won two state championships, had four D-I athletes. My nerves are gone and I’m ready to play him. I want to play him.”


Spring Garden 50, Cedar Bluff 26: Maybe it is tough to beat somebody four times in a season, but this time it was Kerstin Bryant’s turn to shine.

Bryant hit five 3-pointers and finished with 15 points. Tiyonna Rogers had 17 points and six rebounds, and eighth-grader Neely Welsh added 10 points.

Bryant hit four treys in the first half to help the Lady Panthers open a big lead. She was 5-of-7 from behind the arc in the game.

“Kerstin has more confidence in her shot than I do sometimes,” Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin said, “but she’s been in this atmosphere before and she knows we expect our good players to make big plays.

“She just put us on her back and made big plays. It gave us some wiggle room. It was tight and she allowed us to wiggle and do a little more things on offense.”

Bryant figured it was just her turn because of what teammates did against the Lady Tigers in the games earlier this year.

“In past when we played them Macy (Reedy’s) been hot and Payton’s been hot and I don’t really think they were looking at me that much tonight because Macy and Payton did their jobs earlier in the season,” Bryant said. “It was my turn to do my job and that’s why I think I got the open shots.”

The Lady Panthers (27-3) will play Skyline (25-6) Monday at 6:30 p.m. for a trip to the Final Four.

Sacred Heart’s Quin Riggins (L) forces Cedar Bluff’s Brian Stitts to lose the handle during their Northeast Regional semifinal game Thursday night. (Photo by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

Sacred Heart 74, Cedar Bluff 63
CEDAR BLUFF (19-11) –
Isaiha Jones 3-7 1-2 7, Davion Fife 9-14 0-0 21, Treviane Williams 1-5 0-0 3, Ivory Starr 2-4 0-2 4, Michael Croft 11-18 0-0 28, Brian Stitts 0-0 0-0 0, Domonique McCorkle 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-49 1-4 63.

SACRED HEART (20-10) – Quin Riggins 1-1 0-1 2, Diante Wood 12-18 5-7 30, Victor Wilson 2-6 0-0 6, Murdock Simmons 9-10 3-4 23, Khalil Watkins 2-4 0-0 4, Caleb Brown 2-3 0-1 4, Josh Brown 1-1 0-0 3, Stephen Stansil 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 30-46 8-12 74.

Cedar Bluff 9 20 21 13 — 63
Sacred Heart 23 24 13 14 — 74

3-point goals: Cedar Bluff 10-20 (Jones 0-1, Fife 3-4, Williams 1-2, Croft 6-12 McCorkle 0-1); Sacred Heart 6-16 (Wood 1-4, Wilson 2-6, Simmons 2-2, Watkins 0-1, C. Brown 0-1, J. Brown 1-1, Stansil 0-1). Rebounds: Cedar Bluff 25 (Croft 10); Sacred Heart 17 (Riggins 6). Fouled out: Starr. Total fouls: Cedar Bluff 15, Sacred Heart 10. Officials: McKenzie Marbury, Kim Byram, Bill Young.

Decatur Heritage 57, Skyline 39
Jackson Kyle 2-5 0-1 4, Walker Jones 3-8 0-0 9, Will Jones 2-5 0-0 4, Derrick Bishop 7-12 0-0 14, Noah Boler 6-11 2-2 15, Heath Bolton 4-5 1-2 9, Preston Terry 0-1 0-0 0, Clay Smith 0-5 0-0 0, Lance Callahan 0-0 0-0 0, Michael Amerson 0-0 0-0 0, Braydon Kyle 1-2 0-0 2, Ian Metzgar 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-54 3-5 57.

SKYLINE (17-10) – Nathan Berninger 4-12 0-0 9, Hunter Prince 5-10 0-2 12, Troy Saint 1-6 0-0 2, Collin Lockard 2-5 2-2 6, Gregory Wade 2-4 1-2 5, Dawson Wynn 1-1 0-0 2, Keith Fortner 1-1 0-0 3, Kordell Talley 0-1 0-0 0, Matthew Burton 0-0 0-0 0, Gavin Arnold 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 16-40 3-6 39.

Decatur Heritage 9 23 14 11 — 57
Skyline 16 8 4 11 — 39

3-point goals: Decatur Heritage 4-13 (J. Kyle 0-2, Wa. Jones 3-6, Boler 1-2, Bolton 0-1, Smith 0-1, B. Kyle 0-1); Skyline 4-17 (Berninger 1-5, Prince 2-6, Saint 0-4, Wade 0-1, Fortner 1-1). Rebounds: Decatur Heritage 24 (Boler 11); Skyline 31 (Lockard 9). Total fouls: Decatur Heritage 10, Skyline 8. Officials: Patrick Jolly, Darius Binion, Jeff Corley.

Spring Garden 50, Cedar Bluff 26
CEDAR BLUFF (19-13) –
Matison Bedwell 1-4 0-0 2, Kyla O’Neal 2-7 0-0 4, Julianne Wilson 4-6 0-0 10, Hannah Cosby 1-3 0-0 2, Alexis Smith 3-10 0-0 6, Adianna Valencia 0-3 0-0 0, Russell Givens 0-0 0-0 0, Emily Goss 1-5 0-0 2, Maggie Clowdis 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 12-38 0-0 26.

SPRING GARDEN (27-3) – AJ Broome 1-4 0-0 2, Macy Reedy 2-6 0-0 4, Kerstin Bryant 5-9 0-0 15, Payton McGinnis 1-2 0-0 2, Tiyonna Rogers 8-14 1-1 17, Neely Welsh 4-5 0-0 10, Chloe Jarrett 0-0 0-0 0, Breanna Rogers 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-40 1-1 50.

Cedar Bluff 8 6 7 5 — 26
Spring Garden 18 10 11 11 — 50

3-point goals: Cedar Bluff 2-13 (Bedwell 0-2, O’Neal 0-1, Wilson 2-4, Cosby 0-2, Smith 0-1, Goss 0-3); Spring Garden 7-16 (Broome 0-1, Reedy 0-2, Bryant 5-7, McGinnis 0-1, T. Rogers 0-2, Welsh 2-3). Rebounds: Cedar Bluff 24 (Wilson 5); Spring Garden 21 (T. Rogers 6). Total fouls: Cedar Bluff 11, Spring Garden 6. Officials: Bruce Jones, Melanie Gess, Darrell Bowen.

Davion Fife (3) and Michael Croft keyed Cedar Bluff’s rally with 24 combined points in the second half. (Photo by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

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