By Kim West
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The high-flying, fast-paced Tanner boys basketball team went old school in the closing minutes of Friday’s Class 2A state championship game.
Instead of its trademark dunks and frenetic style of play, the Rattlers staved off a furious rally by LaFayette with fundamental layups, methodical free throw shooting and a slowed-down offense that allowed the seconds to drain away the Bulldogs’ hopes of a massive upset.
No. 1 Tanner claimed its second state title in three seasons by beating LaFayette 61-45 in front of a roaring crowd at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Arena.
As it has all season, the Rattlers drew upon its balanced and athletic starting five — point guard Justin “Bubba” Smith, guard Greg Maclin, center Jace Haggermaker, forward Fred Rich and guard Desmond Love — and sophomore sixth man Jon-Jon Fletcher to finish off LaFayette, which went to a full-court press in the final period in an attempt to fuel a comeback.
But the Bulldogs’ gritty efforts were in vain as Tanner extended its 40-31 lead entering the fourth after allowing LaFayette to cut the lead to 46-38 midway through the quarter on a bucket by Tyric Davis.
Smith, the game MVP, stole the ball and drained a pair of free throws to give Tanner a 14-point advantage. A layup from RaQuavious “Qua” Boyd made it 52-42 with 4:07 remaining but the Bulldogs could get no closer as Love snagged his third steal of the game and found Fletcher — who opted for a simple layup rather than a flashy dunk — waiting at the other end of the floor for an easy basket to push the lead back to 12.
A driving layup and a putback by Rich, who also skipped throwing down one of his customary rim-rattling dunks, made a trey by LaFayette’s Kaminski Bledsoe a non-factor at 58-45 at the two-minute mark.
Fittingly, the Rattlers closed out their school’s fourth state title in two years — Tanner has won titles in basketball, track and football during that span — with a free throw by Fletcher and another pair of freebies by Smith.
Tanner shot 44.4 percent from the field, 40.0 from 3-point range and 70.8 from the charity stripe, while LaFayette was 33.3, 31.6 and 83.3 respectively. The Rattlers also won the turnover battle 14-8.
The Rattlers, who did not trail in the game, had several double-digit leads but could not put the feisty Bulldogs away until the closing minutes.
Fletcher came off the bench to score 11 points, including eight in the first half, and had three assists. Smith and Rich each had 14 points and combined for 12 rebounds. Love tossed in seven points and Maclin finished with five while guarding Boyd, LaFayette’s best player.
Tanner coach Chris Whitt, who has won more than 450 games and two state titles in 19 seasons, opted to go with a four-guard lineup and Rich in the post during several stretches to spell Haggermaker. Despite being in foul trouble for most of the game, Haggermaker, the Northwest Regional MVP, scored eight points and corralled five rebounds.
Boyd led LaFayette with 22 points, eight rebounds and three assists in a laudable 32-minute effort, while Davis and Kaminski Bledose each had six points.
Tanner, which went 14-3 against 3A-6A playoff teams this season, finishes 28-4, with its only losses coming to 6A Austin and James Clemens, 5A Cullman in the finals of the Yuletide Christmas Tournament and a rematch with 3A Madison Academy.
The six-player senior class for the Rattlers — Haggermaker, Smith, Maclin, Rich, Tray Fletcher and Deion Love — won the Limestone County, Area 15 and Northwest Regional tournament titles, in addition to winning its second Blue Map Trophy in three seasons.
Tanner is attempting to become the first school in the Tennessee Valley to win a state championship in three sports in the same school year since Hazlewood in 1985-86. The Rattlers won the 2A football title last fall, and will go for back-to-back track titles this spring.
LaFayette, despite being unranked, won the Northeast Regional and caps the season at 21-12.