MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Outside of Central’s locker room, Devin Pugh had his head in his hands, disconsolate.
In the postgame interview room, Carver-Montgomery's Brandon Murphy put teammate Antonio Nelson in a playful headlock.
Pugh and Nelson scored the final points for their respective teams Friday in the Class 6A Central Regional final. It’s just that Nelson’s mattered a bit more. After trailing for the entire game, Pugh’s layup with just 7.1 seconds remaining knotted the game at 56-all. The Wolverines called a timeout to set up their final play — and even though it wasn’t what coach James Jackson drew up, it was rendered moot moments later.
Taking the inbounds pass, Nelson dribbled to midcourt before heaving a desperation shot. As the buzzer sounded, the ball swished through the net, giving Carver a 59-56 victory to advance to the final four for the fourth consecutive season.
It was a bitter pill for the Red Devils (27-2) to swallow.
Afterward, assistant coach Greg Johnson — standing in for head coach Bobby Wright, who missed his third straight game as he continues to rehabilitate from pinched nerves that have left the right side of his body paralyzed — admitted he would rather have lost by 20 points than to experience another narrow defeat to the Wolverines (24-4).
“That kind of loss right there, it’s just devastating,” Johnson said. “And the same thing happened to us last year with them. Same fashion.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Nelson’s teammates weren’t in a state of shock about his game-winner. The sophomore challenges the coaching staff at every practice to let him attempt half court shots. More often than not, he ends up making them.
But it wasn’t until Friday that it happened in a real game.
“He really takes it serious,” Jackson said. “And I tell y’all what, all throughout the year and throughout the summer, this kid has been hitting shots like that. We’ve just been giving it to him at the end of the game, especially in a situation like that. The Lord blessed him and blessed us. He nailed it.”
Johnson, on the other hand, couldn’t believe it.
“When I saw the shot go up, I was thinking overtime,” he said. “I thought it wasn’t going to go in. But it went straight in.”
He couldn’t help but think back to the Red Devils’ season finale last year. Just like Friday, they were pitted against the Wolverines. And just like it unfolded Friday, Central fell to Carver as time expired, as the Wolverines converted on an alley-oop layup for a 65-63 win in the sub-regionals.
When asked whether the Wolverines simply “have their number,” Johnson scoffed.
“I don’t think they have our number,” he said. “I just think it was in their hands today. It was for them today, not us.”
Had it ended in their favor, the Red Devils possibly could have clinched more than a berth to the state semifinals; they might have got their coach back, too. Carolyn Wright, Bobby’s wife, said her husband has made “tremendous strides” during rehab, enough that they believed he could have returned to coach had they moved on to Birmingham, Ala., next week.
It was not to be, however.
What made the loss all the more difficult to stomach for the Red Devils was that Pugh’s layup marked the contest's first tie. Carver forward Demetrius Houston — who scored a team-high 16 points and was named the MVP of the tournament — corralled the opening tip and slammed it home for a 2-0 lead.
The Wolverines extended their advantage to as many as eight (12-4) in the first quarter, but ended the opening period up just 16-13.
And that was the theme throughout: Carver would stake itself out to a seemingly comfortable advantage only for Central to claw its way back. Johnson couldn’t have been more pleased with the effort.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” he said. “They fought. They scratched. They did everything they could to get back into the game. They fought back and tied it up, so I’m real proud of them.”
Not that it came as any surprise to Jackson. Even when his team jumped out to its largest lead — up 41-31 with five minutes to play in the third quarter — he knew the game was far from over. He noted that Central was “just as athletic as we are,” before asking the players seated beside him a question.
“We knew this was going to be a game of what, fellas?” he asked.
“Runs!” they answered in unison.
“That’s what we say every time,” Jackson said. “We’re going to be up some. We’re going to be down some. We just knew we had to be prepared. We knew they were going to make a good run at us and those guys withstood it and put some points back on the board. I thought we could have closed it out if we had hit some free throws down the stretch, but the good Lord didn’t see it that way, so we had to take it how we did.”
Falling in such an agonizing manner left Anthony Moore in a daze. Being named to the all-tournament team — which included a game-high 17 points Friday — was no salve for Central’s star junior.
“The loss is hard (to) take in. Losing to them two years in a row on the same type of shot ” said Moore as his voice trailed off.
With their season finished, Johnson and the rest of the Red Devils were left to think about what might have been, if only for a moment. But Johnson wouldn’t tolerate players dwelling on the loss. They could each deal with the defeat in their own way. It could only last as long as they were on the bus, though.
Next season beckons, after all.
“When we get back to Phenix City, hopefully we’ll be over it and done with it and we’ll be thinking about next year,” Johnson said. “It’s over now. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Friday at Alabama State
Carver 16 14 16 13—59
Central 13 12 18 13—56
Demetrius Houston 16, Brandon Murphy 14, Kaleb Provitt 11, Harold Cardwell 7, Antonio Nelson 6, Brandon Austin 5.
Anthony Moore 17, Devin Pugh 12, Marterrious Rogers 8, Tavare Igus 5, Tionne Williams 5, Qutavious Lewis 5, Tre Todd 4.
Records: Central, 27-2; Carver, 24-4. Next: Central, season over; Carver, vs. Mountain Brook.