There were simply too many clutch plays in Benjamin Russell’s game against Dadeville to choose any single one to lead off this story.
Benjamin Russell wing Corri Milliner made the eventual game-winning bucket on a heady play in transition, but that goes without mentioning the game-tying putback by Dadeville’s Avontae Wilson seconds prior.
Even getting to that point required two apparent game-winning 3s to be negated, one by a buzzer-beating layup, a series of clutch free throws in both regulation and overtime and a wild second-half comeback from the Wildcats.
Benjamin Russell scratched past Dadeville 79-75 in a triple-overtime classic before a raucous crowd at Benjamin Russell High School gymnasium Tuesday.
“It’s a testament to them. See, basketball is emotional. There’s no mask. There’s no distance. Everybody’s involved,” Benjamin Russell coach Jeremy Freeman said. “So it’s easy to get out of body experiences that may or may not be beneficial to the team. These guys are learning on the job. They have not been through all these scenarios. I’m just happy for a win. A win is a win.”
Milliner, sophomore guard Chris Foster and senior guard Quez Thompson all scored double figures for the Wildcats with 16, 11 and 14 points, respectively. Antojuan Woody and Jordan Rambo each tallied 19 for the Tigers, with Daquan Doss close behind at 17.
It was eighth grader CeDerian Morgan who led Benjamin Russell in both scoring and rebounding, however, picking up 17 points as part of a double-double.
“He’s a great kid,” Freeman said. “I’m just so proud for him to have these moments. Like I tell him all the time, ‘These moments are going to be familiar to you because they’re going to be coming so commonly to you as the years progress.’”
The Wildcats trailed to start both the second and third overtimes.
Rambo hit a layup to set the score at 71-68 Dadeville with three minutes left in the third overtime before Foster caught a crisp pass on the left wing and buried a 3 to tie the game at 71-71.
It was his second critical game-tying triple in the extra periods after he hit one off the dribble to even the tally at 63-63 in double overtime.
A palpable intensity burned in his eyes during the second half and overtimes.
“It was just the crowd, coach always tells us to lean on the crowd,” Foster said. “When you made a shot, the whole gym seemed like it was about to tear down. I hit two big 3s and went on from there.”
Tuesday’s tilt took on a special importance for Foster too.
His father is Dadeville head coach Jesse Foster, as the relatives found themselves split on opposite ends of the floor for the matchup between the two sides.
“Dadeville prepared pretty good, with screens, how we play. I give him props for that,” Chris Foster said. “It’s always fun playing against my dad. It’s pretty tough for him coaching against me because I know it’s hard coaching against your son.”
After Foster’s splash knotted up the score, Thompson recorded an emphatic block in transition to set up Morgan for a go-ahead layup off an offensive rebound.
Thompson then dished out a slick feed to Morgan on the Wildcats’ next possession to put them ahead 75-71 with one minute remaining.
The junior high student hit a pair of game-winning free throws earlier this season, and after a career high in points Tuesday, Freeman believes his future is now.
“Forget the years. This is the year,” Freeman said. “You’re getting better every game. You’ve been watching it, they’ve been watching it. Like I said, once he initially got the adjustment of the physicality — and you’ve got to understand, he’s a physical kid. He’s not easy to sling around. They’re slinging him, but it ain’t easy on them. And he jumps with two hands, that makes a great rebounder when you jump with two hands.”
Following the bucket that put Benjamin Russell ahead to two scores, Philstavious Dowdell stuck back a missed free throw to cut the lead in half and Dadeville tied it on Wilson’s above-mentioned putback immediately thereafter.
Milliner caught the ball behind the Tigers’ press with 40 seconds to play, noticed only one defender was near the basket and charged toward it to finish a gorgeous scoop layup that gave Benjamin Russell a 77-75 lead.
“I just saw a two-on-one, I saw me and CeDerian and they had one player down there,” Milliner said. “Dadeville had scored, (my teammates) looked up, they saw me, and the defender was baiting to go back to CeDerian. So I just layed it up.”
Soon the Wildcats had the ball again with 9.6 seconds remaining, looking for a likely quick foul from Dadeville and two important free throws. But rather than try to end the game at the line, Thompson grabbed the ball and dashed toward the basket, finishing through contact to seal a two-score lead — and a Wildcat victory — then and there.
“You’ve got to want people to want the ball. To make the plays,” Freeman said. “We’re fortunate to have more than one person who wants the ball, and that’s a good thing and a bad thing. In that situation right there, the best thing to do was to go ahead and score because it was the easiest opportunity for us.”
It was far from the only critical shot Thompson hit Tuesday.
Dadeville led much of the contest, going ahead by 12 at one point in the second quarter after a 3 from Doss. The Tigers led by nine at halftime.
“One thing I try to impress upon them is staying the course,” Freeman said. “Several times in the first half, it probably looked like I should have taken a timeout, but what they’ve got to learn is that sometimes a timeout isn’t going to help you. First half, we’re just down eight or 10, we missed layup after layup so it wasn’t something they were doing. It was self-inflicted.”
It took until there were less than two minutes remaining in regulation for Benjamin Russell to get its first lead since the score was 3-2. Thompson picked up five points in-a-row to cut Dadeville’s lead to 44-43 in the final period, with junior T.J. Calhoun tying the game 46-46 on a 3-pointer.
Milliner hit a free throw to give Benjamin Russell a 47-46 lead, but Thompson stole the show as he stole the ensuing inbounds pass, spun around and hit a shot falling away from the basket with 1:07 remaining.
“Surprised,” Thompson said of his reaction after the shot went through. “He fouled me right there and I just threw it up because I thought they were going to call it. And it went in.”
Down 49-48, Doss buried a pressure-cooked 3 from the left corner with 16 seconds remaining, what seemed a clear game-winner for the Tigers. But Thompson drew a foul coming back up the court.
The Dadeville contingent cheered with all its might, a theme Tuesday with both sides’ student sections making for a deafening environment. Spectators were standing under both baskets because the gym ran out of seats.
“Both sides were super emotional,” Freeman said. “We couldn’t get anymore people in here I guess, it was to the rim.”
Thompson hit the first foul shot but missed the second. But Morgan was there to grab the rebound and draw yet another foul.
He missed his first free throw, but with the stadium rocking and all the emotions of the game on his shoulders, made the second to tie the contest with 9.5 seconds left in regulation.
The Wildcats held a 57-56 lead with 20 seconds remaining in the first overtime, but Dadeville guard Javerious Askew stole a pass and knocked down another potential game-winning 3 for the Tigers with 12 ticks left.
Thompson surged up the floor. His layup rolled off the rim, got batted around twice and wound up in the hands of Benjamin Russell guard La’Bronski McKinney, who rattled the putback home as the buzzer sounded to send the game to double overtime tied at 59.
“Play after play after play, there were so many things going on,” Freeman said. “Again, hats off to Dadeville. They played hard. They played hard. I just don’t see how they can’t go as far as they want to go in (Class) 3A.”
Finally, after three extra periods, Milliner and Thompson’s game-clinching efforts capped off a victory for the Wildcats.
Ending a string of three home games, Benjamin Russell hits the road Thursday for a matchup with archrival Opelika. Dadeville travels to Beulah the same night.