The unranked Eagles took No. 6 Anniston to the wire before falling 42-36. This came a week after Hokes Bluff beat No. 4 Jacksonville, the defending state champion.
“They’re a team that likes knocking off the giant, and when they sensed it, they just got in it again,” Hokes Bluff coach Jason Shields said. “They just kept digging at it and digging at it, and if we had a little more time we would have had a better chance.
“We played some of the top three teams in the state back-to-back-to-back, and we played them as hard as we could play them. That’s all you can do.”
But in the end, Anniston was simply too much and scored a sub-regional win. This puts Anniston in next week’s regional tournament for the eighth straight year under coach Eddie Bullock.
The victory did not come without dramatics, though. After a sloppy first half in which Anniston led 15-12 into the break, the Bulldogs extended their lead to as many as eight in the third quarter. Then a basket by Hokes Bluff guard Sydney Ball followed by a 3-pointer and one of two foul shots turned the game around completely.
“We were up by eight and ready to drive the nail in, and two mistakes changed from us being up by 10, 12 or 14 to them hitting two 3s and they’re two points down,” Bullock said.
The Bulldogs’ 10-point lead with 3:05 left in the game slowly began to disappear when Hokes Bluff successfully trapped Anniston on each offensive possession, causing consecutive turnovers ending with the Eagles turning them into easy buckets.
“We talked about getting the ball in critical areas in the press, and we kept getting the ball down in critical areas where they can use the out-of-bounds line as an extra defender,” Bullock said. “What I had to do was draw up a play and get us to offset that.”
Eventually, Anniston clung to a 40-36 lead and passed the ball around until finding Kiyana Bullock wide open under the basket, extending the lead to six with 31 seconds left.
“We never really could have got the lead,” Shields said. “And, if we would have gotten the lead, it would have been a whole different ballgame. We did all we could do.”
With half a minute remaining, Anniston’s defense played as solid as it had all night. Hokes Bluff was only able to get one shot up, which Carlie Shields missed. As Quanetria Bolton pulled down the rebound, the horn sealed the win.
“We worked on defense, and, in the end, defense is what got us through,” Bullock said. “The kids never got down, and we just kind of toughed it out.
“It was our heart, our toughness. That’s our signature. I talk to them all the time about having grit and being a champion in the face of adversity. They never fold. They don’t panic, they just do what they do.”
Shields finished with a team-high 12 points and finished the season with 999 career points. Anniston was led by Bolton, who had a game-high 13 points and 16 rebounds.
The Bulldogs will play Tuesday at 6 p.m. against Madison County in the regional tournament at Pete Mathews Coliseum at Jacksonville State.
“I really don’t know a whole lot about them, but I know they have a good record and beat some good teams,” Bullock said. “We’re just going to have to go out and play, and we can’t afford to take anyone lightly because we’re so young. We’re just concentrating on being disciplined and good defensively.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star.