By Maurice Patton
MURFREESBORO – There were no double-digit second-half advantages for Columbia Central to squander Monday night.
The Lions battled uphill throughout most of their Region 4-AAA quarterfinal contest against top-seeded host Blackman – and the Blaze’s twin towers of 6-5 Josh Alexander and 6-8 Dontae Stringer – falling behind just before intermission and never led over the final two quarters of their eventual 55-44 season-ending loss.
“We played as well as we could have played,” Central coach Nick Campbell said after his team finished a 19-9 season on a three-game losing streak, following a 66-63 District 8-AAA semifinal loss to Tullahoma and a 78-75 overtime consolation loss to Lincoln County. In each of the previous two defeats, the Lions blew fourth-quarter cushions of 14 and 19 points.
“Our kids played really well.”
Central opened a first-period lead on a pair of Omari Franklin 3-pointers, and a Franklin free throw with 20 seconds remaining in the half threatened to send the visitors to the locker room up 20-19 before Braxton Caruthers’ corner trey beat the buzzer and made it a 22-20 game.
“That gave them a lot of energy, a lot of confidence going into the third and fourth quarters,” Franklin said. “They hit shots.”
Between hitting shots and grabbing misses, Blackman eventually wore Central down at both ends of the floor. Consecutive treys by Mark Cooper, the second beating the third-quarter buzzer, put the hosts up 43-33 – a margin the Lions were unable to overcome.
“They protected the paint,” Q Martin said. “They got rebounds. Some we thought we could get, they’d just snatch it out of the air. There was nothing we could do about it.”
While Blackman’s size was the biggest challenge for Central, Blaze coach Barry Wortman said the visitors posed problems for his team as well.
“It was a battle of styles,” he said. “I thought they created a lot of problems for us with their five-out dribble-drive. They exposed us every bit as much as we did them with the matchup. Give them credit. Their style was tough on us.
“We kept them in front of us as best we could.”
In the end, though, size mattered.
“It’s tough when you’ve got 6-8, 6-5, athletic, skilled,” Campbell said. “We were in good position, and they went up and got it right over us. They’re probably one of the most well-coached teams in the state.”
Stringer scored a game-high 14 points with Alexander adding 12 and Cooper 11. Franklin and Martin scored 12 each to lead Columbia Central.
Despite the late slide, Campbell was upbeat regarding the Lions’ campaign.
“I think we took a step in the right direction as a program,” he said. “We’ve grown a lot, matured. We are going to miss the leadership of (seniors) Cam Johnson and Demetrius McCoy.”
Blackman will face Coffee County, a 64-56 quarterfinal winner Monday over Riverdale, in Tuesday’s semifinals.
Blackman boys 55, Columbia Central 44
C 15 5 13 11 – 44
B 10 12 21 12 – 55
Columbia Central (44) – Jordan Davis 4, Omari Franklin 12, Cam Johnson 3, Demetrius McCoy 2, Roni Bailey 6, Bubba Perkins 5, Q Martin 12
Blackman (55) – Braxton Caruthers 6, Josh Alexander 12, Mark Cooper 11, Kevarius Martin 9, Jabahri Mastin 3, Dontae Stringer 14
3-pointers – Columbia Central 5 (Franklin 3, Johnson, Perkins), Blackman 5 (Caruthers 2, Cooper, Martin, Mastin)
Photos by Vanessa Beach / SM-Tn Sports