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Lizi Arbogast / The Outlook Benjamin Russell's Gabe Benton, left, looks for a shot against Opelika's Rashaad Frye.

“Free throws.” 

That’s what it came down to in the end for Benjamin Russell’s boys basketball team and coach Jeremy Freeman.

Trailing by three points against Opelika in the Class 6A Area 6 tournament and fighting for a chance at the championship and an opportunity to continue their season, the Wildcats threw up a last-ditch 3-pointer with less than a second to go.

It didn’t fall, but Qua Howell was fouled on the way up. That gave Benjamin Russell a chance to at least tie it up and send it to overtime. But the very first free throw rimmed up and out, virtually ensuring the Bulldogs’ victory with 0.7 seconds left. Howell sank the final two, but it wasn’t quite enough in a 59-58 loss Wednesday night.

“It’s just been tough; it’s been a tough year,” Freeman said. “That loss right there, just pretty much, it’s a lot to handle. I don’t have many words for that because it was the last play and we had the ball at the line.”

Although it’s easy to point to those final free throws as what sealed the deal for Benjamin Russell, there were plenty of other moments that didn’t go the Wildcats’ way.

Very early on, BRHS went through a scoring drought similar to the ones that have plagued it all year long. After taking a 6-4 edge on a fast break layup by Za Stowes with 5:25 left in the first quarter, the Wildcats didn’t score again for the rest of the frame. 

Although Opelika built up just a seven-point advantage during that Benjamin Russell lull, that was enough for the Bulldogs. From that point on, the Wildcats were about two or three possessions behind until late in the fourth quarter.

“That’s what it was all night,” Freeman said. “Then we went up by three and we came right out of that and they made a shot. Then they came down again and we fouled and they made two more (free throws). They went back up and we just never could get ahead; that’s how it was the whole year.”

Benjamin Russell did eventually take a lead though. With just under three minutes to go, Corey Millner hit a layup to tie it at 49-49. Then on Opelika’s ensuing possession, Malcolm Simmons picked off a Bulldog pass, shoved up the court to Desmond Bishop, who laid it in and was fouled on the way up. Bishop capped off the classic 3-point play and BRHS held its first lead since that early mark in the first quarter.

But Opelika answered by four straight to take the lead right back.

BRHS responded well though as Simmons hit a layup to take a 54-53 lead, but the Bulldogs scored four straight free throws to make it a three-point game. From there, the Wildcats could never find an answer.

With the loss, Benjamin Russell finished the year just 3-16 on the season. Although it was a far cry from what Freeman wanted, he said he learned a lot from this season and those are things he can take into his future with the Wildcats.

“It was a very big learning experience for myself,” Freeman said. “It was an adjustment and it was truly a grind trying to find a unit. We were just not successful with continuity and that is what comprises a team. (These are) great young men and very good people. I really think they gave it everything for the program but it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Lizi Arbogast is the sports editor at Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc.