By Kim West
When it comes to postseason crunch time mixed with a home-court advantage, the Tanner basketball program appears to thrive on the added pressure and frenzied atmosphere.
After falling to Class 5A East Limestone in the Limestone County Tournament finals a week ago, the Tanner boys and girls bounced back Monday to sweep the 2A, Area 15 tournament titles against Lexington in front of a capacity crowd.
Both Tanner teams will host the sub-regional round later this week. The girls (18-7) play Colbert Heights (10-15) on Thursday, while the boys (16-8) face Cherokee on Friday.
‘A team effort’
In a matchup of top 10 teams in 2A, the Tanner girls built a 20-point cushion and then kept a resilient Lexington squad (25-6) on the ropes for a 58-45 victory.
Tanner senior guard Sydney Houston and freshman forward Kirstin Brown combined for several pick-and-roll and give-and-go plays, and the Rattlers managed to fight through the Golden Bears’ swarming full-court press.
Houston’s arsenal of dribble-drives, post moves, pull-up jumpers, deft passing and a lightning-quick first step flummoxed a multitude of defenders, allowing her to finish with 19 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals.
Brown had 15 points and seven boards despite being limited by foul trouble, and senior forward Jasmine Smith added 10 points and two blocks down the stretch against Savannah Stults, who led Lexington with 17 points.
Tanner coach Larry Greene, whose teams have appeared in the area tournament finals in 16 of his 17 seasons, said early foul trouble for the Rattlers’ front line meant having to play Houston at times in the post instead of letting her roam free at her natural wing position.
“Sydney is such a student of the game, and she really knows how to go down to the post and make moves — it was a very determined effort,” said Greene, who is in his final season on the Rattlers’ bench.
He said winning its area tourney meant Tanner does not cross paths with No. 8 Red Bay (28-3) until a possible showdown at the regional tournament.
“I thought everyone played hard, and it was a team effort against Lexington — we talked at halftime about how they would keep competing,” Greene said. “Our players were just determined to stay here Thursday night because we did not want to go to Red Bay, which is a very hard place to play.”
With Tanner clinging to a two-point lead late in the first quarter, Jessika Milton bounced a nifty entry pass to Smith on the left block that she converted it into a three-point play.
This ignited a 17-5 run for Tanner from which the Golden Bears never could recover despite chipping away at the deficit enough times to keep the Rattlers on edge.
Stults scored six straight points to cut the lead to 12 late in the third, but buckets from Smith and Milton pushed the advantage to 46-30 entering the final period. Midway through the fourth, Stults and Addison McGree drilled back-to-back treys to make it 52-41.
But during the ensuing Tanner possession, both sharpshooters fouled out during a bizarre 15-second sequence. This included a technical against Lexington, eight free throw attempts by the Rattlers and a four-point swing that snuffed the Golden Bears’ final rally.
Love & basketball
The tenth-ranked Tanner boys stormed back from an early double-digit deficit in a game with five ties and 11 lead changes, dispatching Lexington 76-69 behind a 27-point, clutch free-throw shooting effort by senior guard Desmond Love.
Love, the only returning starter for the young but talented defending state champions, went 6-of-8 from the charity stripe and knocked down three 3-pointers.
His standout performance, along with 15 points from JonJon Fletcher and 10 from Deshun Freeman, helped negate Lexington’s relentless style of play on both ends of the court.
Tanner used a 25-10 run to erase a 10-point deficit in the first half and led by five at halftime. But in the third quarter, Lexington used hot shooting from behind the arc to take a six-point lead heading into the final period.
Tanner opened the fourth with a 6-0 run book-ended by a long jumper from Love and a Fletcher scoop layup to tie the game at 55.
The key play in the game came with less than two minutes left as Fletcher converted a shot in the paint to tie the game at 68, while also drawing Lane Adams’ fourth foul.
Off his own missed free throw, Fletcher found Deshun Freeman under the basket to give Tanner the lead for good at 70-68. Freeman then calmly sank two free throws to push the lead to four,
In the final minute, Love hit two more from the line and Blake Whitt went 3-of-4 at the charity stripe as the Golden Bears were forced to foul to regain possession. But when they did get the ball back, their 3-point shots came up short.
Adams led Lexington (20-10) with 18 points, and Logan Allen added 15.
Sydney Houston, Kelsey Houston, Smith and Brown each earned All-Area honors for the regular season.
Love, Fletcher, Blake Whitt and Ty Mayberry were named to the boys’ All-Area team.
Area tournament champions get to host a sub-regional game, while the runners-up must travel to face another area’s champion.
The sub-regional winner qualifies for the Northwest Regional Tournament in Hanceville on Feb. 18-22, while losing teams will be eliminated from the postseason.
Five teams in Limestone County — the boys’ teams from Athens, Tanner and West and the East Limestone and Tanner girls — claimed area tourney titles on Monday.
As tournament runners-up, the Athens and Ardmore girls and East boys are still in contention for a regional berth but a need a road upset to get to Tom Drake Coliseum.
Listed below are scores from Monday’s area tournament championship games.
Class 5A, Area 16
• Athens 50, Muscle Shoals 33
Class 5A, Area 15
• Cullman 92, East Limestone 89 (double OT)
Class 4A, Area 16
• West Limestone 62, Wilson 55
Class 2A, Area 15
• Tanner 76, Lexington 69
Class 5A, Area 16
• Muscle Shoals 58, Athens 44
Class 5A, Area 15
• East Limestone 75, Cullman 63
Class 4A, Area 14
• J.O. Johnson 57, Ardmore 42
Class 2A, Area 15
• Tanner 58, Lexington 45