There are two words you can use this year to describe the Russell County Warriors basketball team and those two words are area champions. After qualifying first in regular season play for Class 6A Area 6, the Warriors got the privilege of advancing to the championship game and playing it at home. The Opelika Bulldogs defeated Benjamin Russell early in the week for the right to face Russell County for the area championship.
In a game where each team won a game during the regular season, the championship game had promise to be a good one. It exceeded the expectations, and then some. The double overtime thriller lasted about two and a half hours, with the two teams playing tough defense and trading baskets most of the night. The largest lead in any part of the game was an eight point Russell County lead, but the Bulldogs quickly closed the gap. There was no point late in the second half that either team had more than a five-point lead and both teams played their hearts out until the final buzzer in the second overtime.
Russell County just had more in the tank Friday night, finally closing the night out with a 56-52 victory. The Warriors started the game off in familiar fashion with Dallas Harper, DJ Epps, Lakin Hill, Jorden Edwards, and Radarius Hinnent on the floor. They also started the game off in unfamiliar fashion, as neither team scored in the first two minutes. Harper finally got the Warriors started with a jump shot, followed by Hinnent with a drive to the basket for two points. With the rim not cooperating for either team, Russell County led by a score of 5-4 after the first quarter.
Opelika continued playing a slow paced offense in the second quarter, trying to negate the advantage the Warriors had in athleticism. Kaden Chinn controlled the boards for Russell County early in the second period, while Hinnent, Edwards, and Jabarri Jordan contributed important baskets on offense. It was still a tight low scoring game with a halftime score of 14-11.
The Warriors started off the third quarter in a full court press on defense, which is usually when DJ Epps and the guard like to take over a game. That is just what happened, as the press produced multiple steals for Epps and Jordan. The rest of the quarter was the Epps and Edwards show on offense, but the Bulldogs also stepped up their offense at the same time. The teams were knotted at 28-28 after three. Epps and Hinnent led the Warriors in the fourth period, but the Bulldogs were able to keep up and end regulation in a 38-38 tie.
Opelika seemed to control most of the first overtime, but Russell County was able to keep up. The Warriors were down 44-42 with 41.8 seconds to go in the game. After getting the ball back, Hinnent was fouled and made both free throws to tie the game at 44-44 with 13 seconds to go. That would be the score heading into the second overtime. Epps, Edwards, and Harper gave County a 51-50 lead with 42 second left. Epps then came through with a big drive to the basket for two points, followed by a steal, then a foul and made free throw. Up 54-52 with 10 seconds left in the game, Edwards was fouled and went to the line to try what was probably the two biggest free throws of his career. Both shots looked smooth as they went in, barely touching the rim. Opelika couldn’t muster any offense in the short time left and the Warriors escaped with the 56-52 victory, with the students and fans storming the court to celebrate with their exhausted players.
In a game like this, fans can make a world of difference. That is just what they did, as the Russell County students showed up early and in droves, filling up an entire section on the home side of the gym. They were loud, supportive, and definitely had an impact on the game. The win not only meant a area championship for the Warriors, but also the opportunity to host their sub-regional game this past Tuesday night against Class 6A Area 8 runner-up Pelham. The winner will face the winner of the Dothan vs. Sidney Lanier game tomorrow in the Southeast Regional, at a time to be determined, at the Garrett Coliseum in Montgomery.