BIRMINGHAM — Watching as the basketball bounced off the back of the iron, Justin Smith shakes his head as he steps away from the foul line.
A quick glance at the scoreboard. Two deep breaths. Lots of positive thoughts.
Smith made the most of his second chance, draining a free throw with 2.7 seconds remaining to send Tanner High past Luverne 51-50 Tuesday afternoon in the Class 2A state semifinals.
Third-ranked Tanner advanced to face LaFayette at 11 a.m. Friday in the Class 2A state title game.
“I was frustrated that I missed the first one,” Smith said. “There was a lot of pressure, but I couldn’t let it get to me. I had to calm myself down and approach it like we do every day at practice.”
Smith’s late free throw was the last of several second-half momentum swings.
So when Jace Haggermaker deflected Luverne’s final inbound pass — swatting it at least 20 feet into the air — the anxious faces lined across Tanner’s bench instantly turned into celebrating smiles.
“Relief. That was the first thing I felt,” Haggermaker said. “Like the weight of the world was off our shoulders. It was tense out there. A lot of pressure.”
Guard Greg Maclin agreed.
“I’ve never been so happy to see those big ol’ arms make a play,” he said of Haggermaker’s final deflection. “It looked like he swatted the ball all the way across the court and into the bleachers. Seeing that was a great feeling.”
Tanner raced out to a 10-point lead early in the first half, but by halftime, the cushion had been swapped for a deficit. Luverne closed out the half with a 9-0 run and carried a seven-point lead into the locker room.
The Rattlers spent most of the afternoon playing from behind.
“They went on a couple of runs, and we didn’t respond very well,” Tanner coach Chris Whitt said. “We haven’t been in that situation very much. How were we going to react? That’s what we asked the guys at halftime. They came out with the right response.”
Tanner used a 10-0 run in third and fourth quarters to rally back. Haggermaker sank a pair of free throws to tie the score, and Maclin made a layup to give the Rattlers a 43-40 lead.
Smith led Tanner with 12 points and nine rebounds, while Maclin had 11 points and six rebounds. Desmond Love tossed in 10 points.
Finishing the game was a struggle. Luverne’s Dont’a Hall, a long 6-foot-7 post player, contested almost every shot Tanner attempted in the lane, finishing with six blocked shots. There were three lead changes and two ties in the final five minutes of the game.
“You couldn’t shoot over him,” Love said. “He was just so big and long. You just had to lean into him and hope the shot went in. He forced you to change your shot.”
“He was a lot bigger than he looked on film,” he said. “At times, it looked like he was 7-feet tall. The guy blocks a lot of shots. We knew that coming in. But we just stuck to our game plan and found a way.”
For Tanner (29-4), next up: LaFayette (21-11), which beat Elba 37-35 with a buzzer-beating putback.
“We’re excited to be in the championship, but we’ll have to play a lot better than we did today,” Whitt said. “We had too many lulls. You can’t have those and expect to win down here.”
All games at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
Class 2A girls semifinals: Prattville Christian 52, Tanner 31
Class 2A boys semifinals: Tanner 51, Luverne 50
Class 5A girls semifinals: Brewer (32-1) vs. Faith Academy of Mobile (28-4), 9 a.m.
|High School Sports||@DecaturPreps|