Opelika claims tourney crown
By Kevin Eckleberry Sports Editor
After a couple of nail-biters in the first two rounds of the LaGrange Toyota Basketball Classic, the Opelika Bulldogs were able to relax a little bit in Monday’s championship game.
The Bulldogs built a 15-point lead through three quarters, and they led by as many as 22 points in the final period on the way to an 81-69 victory over Rockdale County.
Opelika, which beat McIntosh and LaGrange in the first two rounds, finished with a 3-0 record to capture the championship.
It was not an easy road to the title for the Bulldogs.
On Friday, Opelika was facing a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter, but it rallied for the 71-64 win over McIntosh.
On Saturday, Opelika again had its hands full, and it was able to pull off a hard-earned 61-57 win over LaGrange.
Those are the kind of games Opelika coach John Wadsworth was looking for when he entered his team in the LaGrange tournament.
“That’s why we come over here year after year,” Wadsworth said. “Last year, we played a Hillgrove that played in the state finals. We know we’re going to play good competition. It just makes you tougher.”
While there was plenty of suspense for the Bulldogs in the first two rounds, there wasn’t a whole lot of drama in Monday’s game.
Rockdale County scored five straight points in the third period to get within five, but by the close of the quarter Opelika was on top 60-45.
The Bulldogs soared to a 22-point lead with 2:40 remaining, and Rockdale County closed the game strong to make the final score more respectable.
Wadsworth was glad that his team didn’t have to stage a fourth-quarter rally to pull off the win.
“We talked about it yesterday at practice, and this morning coming over here, that we didn’t want to come out and be down 12, 14 points like we were Friday,” Wadsworth said. “I thought the kids responded. Rockdale’s talented. Their size gave us some trouble. That’s a good tuneup (for region play).”
Opelika was up 17-12 after the first period, but Rockdale County fought back to tie it at 26-26 with four minutes remaining in the half.
Opelika’s lead was 30-29 with three minutes left in the half when it went on a 9-2 run to take a 39-31 lead at the break.
The Bulldogs went up by 10 points early in the third quarter, but Rockdale County strung five consecutive points together to make it a 43-38 game.
That’s when Opelika took off and didn’t look back.
Aldreecus Wilson connected on a 3-pointer with three minutes left in the quarter to push the lead to eight, and the Bulldogs went on to build that lead to 15 by the end of the period.
When Pernell Vickerstaff converted a 3-point play, Opelika was up 65-45 with 5:52 left in the game.
After Opelika went ahead 77-55 with less than three minutes remaining, Rockdale strung six straight points together, highlighted by back-to-back dunks by Darryl Tucker.
After again falling behind by 20, Rockdale County scored the game’s final eight points, but it was too little, too late.
Jarvis Johnson led Opelika with 16 points, and he made all eight of his free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter.
Vickerstaff added 14 points, and Shontrez Tolbert contributed 11 points.
Tucker had a big game for Rockdale County with 26 points, and Conner Ferrell added 15 points.
“It’s hard to win over here. The fact that we were able to come over here and get a championship just says a lot about our kids,” Wadsworth said. “We played hard, we played together. And I thought we played pretty tough.”
It was the sixth straight win for the Bulldogs (8-3), who continued their exceptional play on the road.
“Nine of our first 11 games have been on the road this year,” Opelika coach John Wadsworth said. “That’s on purpose. It toughens you up.”
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