PREP BASKETBALL: Cullman advances to NW Regional Finals with 56-51 OT win over Muscle Shoals

Colton Echols (13 ) led the Bearcats with 14 points in their 56-51 win over Muscle Shoals Wednesday. (Martha Needham/The Cullman Tribune)

HANCEVILLE, Ala. – The Cullman Bearcats made their third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance at Wallace State’s Tom Drake Coliseum Wednesday morning, and it took more than four quarters for them to settle things with Muscle Shoals. The Trojans hit a three-pointer just before the buzzer to tie the score at 40 at the end of regulation and send us to overtime but the extra period belonged to the Bearcats. Cullman shot 13 of 14 at the free throw line in overtime to pull away with a 56-51 win over Muscle Shoals and advance to the Northwest Regional Finals.

Any time it felt like the Bearcats were beginning to pull away toward the end of the fourth quarter the Trojans found a way to respond on the other end. When the buzzer-beating three sent the game to overtime, Cullman Head Coach Stu Stuedeman just reminded his guys to stay poised and credits them for remaining focused down the stretch.

“I just told them to be poised. We’ve been here before and played several overtime games, so it was just about getting them under control and these guys work too hard to let something like that bother them. I’m really upset with myself to be honest with you because I almost sold these guys out,” Stuedeman said. “These guys are fantastic; they work their tails off and I almost sold these guys out man because I should’ve taken a timeout and reviewed. I always foul up 3, always foul up 3. I should’ve taken a timeout and reviewed the situation with them, and I didn’t, and they bailed me out today. That’s the type of people they are. They’re freaking warriors and I roll with them the long way and I’m so thankful for them because they bailed me out today. Thank you to all 15 of them.”

Senior Brodie Banister got off to a slow shooting start in the first half but buried a massive three-pointer with a minute to play in the fourth to give the ‘Cats a 3-point lead. Banister has been building confidence with each game this season.

“The past probably five to eight games I’ve had great confidence, and I wasn’t going to let starting out slow affect me,” Banister said. “I shoot every shot with confidence that its going in.”

Senior Colton Echols finished the game 10 for 10 at the free throw line and fellow Bearcat senior Sam Duskin praised Echols for his performance at the charity stripe. Duskin has confidence in all his teammates to step up when they are needed and is looking forward to getting back on the court with them Tuesday.

“They were great. Colton Echols hit ginormous free throws. Every time we sent him to the line, I was confident,” Duskin said. “10 of 10 is just unheard of. I’m just so proud of everyone, I’m proud of our team and we executed but we’ve got to keep going.”

Stuedeman was proud of his team for hitting big free throws in big moments, but he wasn’t surprised. He and his staff don’t over coach when it comes to free throw shooting, and they trust their guys to step up and hit them when they have to have them.

“We don’t talk about it; we just do it in practice. After every segment we shoot two and rotate, shoot two and get water, and then at the end of practice we make two, we don’t talk about it. When you’re making free throws at the foul line, we don’t talk about it and when you’re missing them, we don’t talk about it. It’s what we do,” Stuedeman said. “They’re going to make them; they’re skilled players and they work their tails off. We don’t have a free throw coach. These guys have just got hearts of lions and the guts to step up there and make it in front of all those people and that’s what they do.”

Cullman 56 – Muscle Shoals 51 (OT) (NW Regional Semifinal)

Sam Duskin knocked down a three to get the ‘Cats started, and Jake Dorough hit a pair of free throws to give Cullman an early, 5-2 lead. Muscle Shoals moved out in front 6-5 midway through the first quarter, but Gray Hopper drained a three to tie the game at 8 later in the period. A Colton Echols basket kept the game tied at 10 but the Trojans were able to score one more time on the other end to take a 12-10 lead into the second quarter.

Duskin scored inside and Kase Nixon drilled a three from the left corner to hold Muscle Shoals’ lead to 18-15 early in the second and Evan Wilson laid one in to make it a 1-point game. Brodie Banister sank a pair of free throws to make it a 21-19 game with around two minutes remaining in the first half and Duskin drove to the rim and scored with less than a minute on the clock to tie the game at 21. Muscle Shoals got one more shot to fall in the final seconds of the period and the Bearcats went into the locker room trailing 23-21 at halftime.

Nixon split a pair of free throws and Wilson scored inside to cut the Trojans’ lead to 25-24 early in the third and Sam Dorough buried a three to put Cullman in front 27-25 with three minutes to play in the period. Nixon laid one in to give the ‘Cats a 29-25 lead with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter and Echols hit a pair of free throws with 19 seconds on the clock to give Cullman a 31-27 lead going into the final frame.

An Echols basket kept the Bearcats ahead 33-29 early in the fourth quarter and Wilson laid one in to make it a 35-31 game with five minutes to play. Muscle Shoals tied the game at 35 with just under two minutes left on the clock but Banister knocked down a three to put the ‘Cats back in front 38-35 with one minute remaining in the fourth. Echols hit a pair of free throws to put Cullman up 3 with 24 seconds to play but the Trojans nailed a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game to overtime locked at 40.

Duskin netted a pair of free throws and Nixon hit another three to keep the Bearcats ahead 45-42 and Echols added two more free throws to make it a 47-44 game later in the period. Nixon hit three of his next four attempts from the line to extend the lead to 50-46 with 42 seconds remaining and after the ‘Cats pulled down a big offensive rebound, Duskin hit a pair from the line to make it a 52-46 game with 32 seconds on the clock. Echols drained four more free throws in the final 14 seconds of the game to secure a 56-51 win for Cullman and a spot in the Elite Eight.

The ’Cats have hit some rough patches throughout the course of the season but now that the stage is biggest and the lights are brightest, they’re playing some of their best basketball and Stuedeman is proud of the way they’ve worked to get to this point.

“That’s the theme of the year man. In December we were 8-7 or maybe even 7-8 and we were going through heck and trying to figure out and I wasn’t very good for them. But they kept coming every day and persevered and persevered and then we finally broke through,” Stuedeman said. “Next thing you know, we’re in these same situations and all they had to do was keep persevering and doing what they’ve been doing all year long. Kudos to our guys man, they’re incredible.”

Echols led the Bearcats with 14 points in the win. Nixon finished with 12 and Duskin posted 11. Cullman will be back on the court at Tom Drake Coliseum Tuesday at 10:45 a.m. to play either Buckhorn or Clay-Chalkville in the Northwest Regional Finals.

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