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Sacred Heart heads to Final Four for fifth straight year after surviving another playoff test

Sacred Heart’s tournament MVP Diante Wood (L) gets ready to make his move on Decatur Heritage’s Derrick Bishop. (Photos by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE — Sacred Heart is headed to its fifth straight trip to the Class 1A Final Four after turning back Decatur Heritage 60-54 in the Northeast Regional final Monday night.

The Cardinals (22-10) will start it’s bid for a fourth straight state championship next Monday at the BJCC against the Central champion — either Cornerstone or Wadley — to be crowned Wednesday at Alabama State.

(To see a photo gallery from the game visit www.bjfranklin.smugmug.com)

“You know, we worked for this,” Sacred Heart coach Ralph Graves said. “As a team we set our goals at the beginning of the year and one of those goals is to make it back to Birmingham and not just make it there but to win it.

“This was on our path on the journey and I’m glad we came out with the win.”

Diante Wood was named MVP of the regional. He scored 20 points, grabbed eight rebounds and went 6-for-6 from the free throw line in the title game. All six free throws were in the fourth quarter and part of 13 straight points for the Cardinals that started in the third quarter.

“I thought he really played well down the stretch; he hit some really tough shots,” Graves said. “I think in the first half everybody was like, ‘Aw, man, you mean to tell me that’s the kid whose going to Alabama?’ Then in the third quarter he hits you with two turnarounds and it was like, ‘Whoa, now we see.’ He hits you with a pull-up 3-pointer it’s like, ‘Well, now we see.’ And now he goes 6-for-6 from the free throw line you’re like, ‘OK, I see exactly what they see.’

“We’re proud to have a talent like Diante with us because everybody’s not blessed to have that.”

The Alabama signee now has been named MVP of the Calhoun County Tournament, the 1A Area 10 Tournament and now the regionals.

“It wasn’t just me,” Wood said. “If it wasn’t for my team then I wouldn’t have those shots.”

Murdock Simmons and Khalil Watkins joined Wood on the all-tournament team. Simmons had eight points, three rebounds and three assists, but tweaked the ankle he hurt in the Calhoun County Tournament finals. Watkins had 13 points on 6-for-6 shooting and grabbed four rebounds.

Graves praised his team’s resilience after it survived its third tight game in its last four postseason starts. The Cardinals narrowly escaped Spring Garden in the area tournament finals, and held off both Cedar Bluff and Decatur Heritage in the regionals.

They led by 17 three minutes into the second quarter Monday, but Decatur Heritage had it back to within three with 4:00 left in the game — shortly after 6-8 Eagles junior Noah Boler fouled out of the game.

“My wife woke up this morning and she told me challenge is inevitable, but defeat is optional,” Graves said. “I don’t think the media, the fans and everybody else give the other team any credit and Decatur Heritage is a really good team and the teams from here on out are that way.

“In order for us to win state we have to be a great team and a disciplined team to do it. … Our schedule was brutal this year and it shows now.”

Sacred Heart has now won 59 straight games against instate Class 1A competition since losing to St. Jude in the semifinals of the first Final Four trip in this run.

“Our team is very resilient,” Graves said. “When things get tough I think they rise to the occasion more. This team kind of reminds me of the first year that we won the state championship; very tough, very scrappy and whatever you throw their way they’re going to rip and fight for just to see how well they play together.”

Graves revealed another of the team’s goals was to go undefeated after New Year’s Day. The Cardinals are now and are just two wins away from completing that task.

“If we can get two more and win the state, if they think this was some kind of joy, it will be really a joy,” Graves said.

Sacred Heart 60, Decatur Heritage 54
SACRED HEART (21-10) –
Quin Riggins 2-6 2-2 7, Diante Wood 6-10 6-6 20, Victor Wilson 4-4 2-5 12, Murdock Simmons 3-9 0-0 8, Khalil Watkins 6-6 0-0 13, Jack Miller 0-0 0-0 0, Stephen Stansil 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-36 10-13 60.

DECATUR HERITAGE (28-4) – Jackson Kyle 4-10 4-5 13, Walker Jones 3-7 2-4 11, Will Jones 0-3 0-0 0, Derrick Bishop 6-8 0-0 12, Noah Boler 6-12 0-1 13, Heath Bolton 1-2 0-1 3, Preston Terry 0-0 0-0 0, Clay Smith 0-1 2-4 2. Totals 20-43 8-15 54.

Sacred Heart 17 14 14 15 — 60
Decatur Heritage 8 11 19 16 — 54

3-point goals: Sacred Heart 8-12 (Riggins 1-1, Wood 2-3, Wilson 2-2, Simmons 2-4, Watkins 1-1, Stansil 0-1); Decatur Heritage 6-14 (Kyle 1-3, Wa. Jones 3-6, Wi. Jones 0-2, Boler 1-1, Bolton 1-1, Smith 0-1). Rebounds: Sacred Heart 22 (Wood 8); Decatur Heritage 21 (Bishop 5, Boler 5). Technical fouls: Wood, Watkins. Fouled out: Boler. Total fouls: Sacred Heart 13, Decatur Heritage 14. Officials: Michael Harrison, Greg Farris, Randy Putman.

Sacred Heart’s Murdock Simmons rips down a rebound in the first half against Decatur Heritage. Simmons and Khalil Watkins joined MVP Diante Wood on the all-tournament team. (Photo by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

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