The Central Red Devils had every opportunity to turn Monday night’s Class 6A Area 7 final into a comfortable, one-sided game.
But the Red Devils just couldn’t do it.
Turnovers, missed free throws and defensive lapses kept the Opelika Bulldogs too close for comfort most of the game until Central righted itself in the closing minutes to take the area crown 61-55.
Junior guard Darren Daniel scored 19 points and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player as the Red Devils (21-4) moved into a sub-regional Friday night against Dothan at Central.
“We’re just very fortunate to come out with a win,” Central coach Bobby Wright said. “Opelika has a really good ballclub. But I’m very proud of my kids because, when we needed to make the free throws, we did.”
The Red Devils dominated the first half but led only 26-19 at the break. Central led by as many as 12 points in the second quarter but went scoreless for 4:54 in the quarter with missed free throws and turnovers. The Red Devils went 1-for-8 from the foul line during the period.
“That’s been somewhat of a limitation for us all season. We’ve worked on them, but I don’t know,” Wright said. “I’ve done everything we could possibly do.”
The Red Devils pushed the lead out to 10 points in the third period and carried a 45-35 lead into the final period.
But Opelika wouldn’t go away. The Bulldogs cut the lead to 48-45 with 3:20 left in the game on a basket by Terrance Milligan.
Central, however, got key stops down the stretch and rediscovered its touch from the free-throw line to push the lead to eight points with less than a minute left and sealed the victory.
“We dropped our intensity going into the fourth quarter,” Daniel said. “That’s what’s been keeping us in it. We try to play hard on defense, keep D-ing everybody up, and the offense will come. We bring our offense from our defense.”
Marquez Lewis and Joseph Thompson were the only other Red Devils in double figures with 14 and 13 points, respectively.
Tay Calloway’s 18 points led Opelika, which will travel to Enterprise for a sub-regional game Friday night.
Wright, whose team has had more than its share of close games this year, believes the Red Devils have developed an added toughness because of it.
“I think this is going to help us in the tough regionals,” he said. “I certainly hope that it does.”
The All-Region team comprises Jacoby Payne and Calloway from Opelika and Antonio King Jr., Thompson and Daniel for Central.
Monday at Central
Opelika 9 10 16 20—55
Central 19 7 19 16—61
Thomas 2, Morris 3, Entrekin 2, Baker 6, Johnson 4, Payne 8, Tay Calloway 18, Blunt 7, Milligan 5
Darren Daniel 19, King 6, Marquez Lewis 14, Chambers 7, Barnes 2, Joseph Thomson 13.
Team records: Central, 21-4; Opelika, 19-8. Next: Dothan at Central, Friday; Opelika at Enterprise, Friday.