This is an opinion column
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
MONTGOMERY — Elvis has been in the building and left. So have Hank and Elton and Prince. Livestock has been sold on the floor and went on to star in somebody’s hamburger.
Last Thursday, a fresh name joined the list of those who have been on center stage at Garrett Coliseum. Baker’s Labaron Philon came through the door as one of the nation’s leading scorers and top high school basketball prospects and by the time he left, defending state champion Enterprise also had flame-seared griddle marks. Well done, please, Mr. Philon, and well done.
The 6-foot-4 junior guard, who recently committed to Auburn, scored 32 points in just three periods but most of those were quiet, dripping off his fingertips like thick barbecue sauce. Come the fourth period, however, the sauce became far too spicy for the Wildcats to stomach.
Philon scored 12 points in the last 6:13 of the game to rally the Hornets, who trailed much of the way, to a 53-41 victory in the Class 7A South Regional semifinals.
Perhaps Philon, number 11 in your program, will one day join the exclusive club of those performers and athletes known by a singular name. Such famous people are known as mononymous and are certainly not anonymous.
“It was a great experience,” said the Baron. “It was a good day.”
Added Baker’s bearded big man of a coach, David Armstrong: “It’s nice to have him in your back pocket.” Or between your belt loops or squeezing through gaps a crisp dollar bill couldn’t pass through sideways. It’s not so nice if Philon becomes a boa constrictor wrapped around your neck, as Enterprise discovered in the fourth period.
Philon — last year’s Alabama Class 7A player of the year as a sophomore — has made his reputation so far on his driving moves to the basket, which is like trying to catch confetti in a tornado. But the Wildcats had him flummoxed early. A stark zero was entered next to his name in the first period because he couldn’t decipher Enterprise’s zone defense, which was deployed to disarm his dribble-drive penetration and make him rely on his somewhat erratic 3-point stroke.
“They did a really good job using a 1-1-3 stack zone with two levels of protection in the middle,” Armstrong said. “It made it hard on him. We had to figure out how to get him free of that middle defender.”
And figure out how to stifle the Wildcats fans who gave Philon a field full of raspberries every time he touched the ball and were literally hanging over his head as he walked off the court through a tunnel at halftime. With the Hornets trailing 21-20, they peered down on him from above and taunted: “We want Philon! We want Philon!”
“Didn’t bother me,” the Baron of Ball said. “I’ve heard it all my life.”
To be fair, it wasn’t the most hostile environment, although Philon and his teammates adjusted to it. The game was played in a chilly, 70-year-old arena with 8,529 seats, of which about 8,429 were empty. Sniffles were heard as much as snarls.
“The air is different here than at home,” Philon said. “It’s hard to shoot because there’s nothing behind the backboard.”
But as the game progressed, there was nothing between him and the backboard, or at least nothing or nobody he couldn’t dispatch, as Philon obligingly gave Enterprise fans what they had asked for when he came off the floor at intermission.
He chose the right time to make his only 3-pointer in an otherwise horrendous 0-of-6 performance from outside, goring the cord from the left corner over a defender to break a 39-39 tie and give Baker the lead for good with 4:51 to go.
Philon then charged the ramparts of the Wildcats’ defense with a flourish of points — a fast-break layup, a bounce-pass assist on Derrick Florence’s breakaway basket, a dribble-drive layin and three free throws, the nucleus of a 20-3 run.
“I didn’t want it to be too close,” Philon said.
As he dribbled out the last 30 seconds, Philon gestured playfully toward the Enterprise fans to make some noise but they were busy vacating the throne they had occupied for the last year.
Will the Hornets soon sit there? They reached the state final four last year only to get routed by James Clemens 80-66 in the semifinals despite Philon’s 29 points. Armstrong feels his team is more experienced this season but some wonder if Philon has enough scoring help for Baker to win a Blue Map, although it won last Thursday despite getting outrebounded substantially and making just 3-of-21 three-pointers.
“Just find a way to win it,” Armstrong told his players, and they did.
Wildcats coach Rhett Harrelson knew his defense played well but still feared seeing the Baron plunge downhill through the storm clouds and land squarely on his players’ backs in the fourth period.
“He really did take over,” Harrelson said. “There were about two or three possessions in a row where he got a steal or a rebound and went coast-to-coast — and not only coast-to-coast but most of the time he’s getting fouled too and making an ‘and one.’”
Philon quickly took advantage of the moment Enterprise stepped out of its zone and went man-to-man.
“We had a bunch of different defenses against him,” Harrelson said. “We wanted to slow him up and not let him get comfortable. But the first possession we go man in the fourth quarter, he rhythm dribbles right over the top of us. We couldn’t make the plays and 11 made all the plays.”
That’s a comforting number Armstrong can dial up, the basketball version of 911. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl knows it also — in desperate need of a playmaking scorer, he is pining for the day Philon fills baskets and seats on the Plains.
“I don’t think we’re out of any game,” Armstrong said. “If we go down to anybody, no matter who it is or where it is, it’s a good feeling to know I have the best player on the floor. He’s an ultra-competitor. He wants to win every time.”
Philon is also a good teammate, although he took 23 shots last Thursday and the rest of the team took 25. His hustle led the Hornets in steals (4), rebounds (7) and minutes played (he never came out) and he made 7 of 7 free throws.
“I was picking up the guys and telling them to hit the next shot,” Philon said. “I was telling them don’t let this be your last game.”
It wasn’t and the Baron left the building for the drive back to Mobile wearing his Auburn pajama bottoms and slippers, his work done until he again puts on the 11.
When the ones are back on his chest, Philon will see what could be a mano-a-mano challenge, a defense completely unlike the Wildcats’ amoeba-like zone. Dothan will try to block the path to the state tournament in Tuesday’s regional final with an aggressive man-to-man defense which wore down Mary G. Montgomery 50-32 Saturday.
Afterward, Wolves coach Jeremy Bynum didn’t sound like he would back off against Philon.
“He’s a phenomenal player and he’s going to get his points,” Bynum said. “Our guys played only zone last year and now they play a bunch of man. They bought into it, the discipline and the fundamentals. I tell them offense sells tickets but rebounding and defense win championships.”
But will Philon force Dothan back into a zone?
“You don’t want to do anything to get away from what you do and make your guys question it,” Bynum said. “We’ve got to be who we are.”
MGM coach Rovertus Kimble, whose Vikings lost to the Hornets three times this season, thinks the Wolves will match up well against Baker and isn’t sure a zone is the best protection against Philon.
“Enterprise tried to do the same thing and they’re sitting at home with us,” Kimble said.