By JIMMY WIGFIELD
MONTGOMERY — Just about everybody but Dothan’s bus driver took turns harassing Baker star Labaron Philon Tuesday and when it was all over the Wolves cleared a path to the state tournament’s final four.
Dothan’s impervious man-to-man defense held Philon to 24 points — only the ninth time this season the nation’s ninth-leading high school scorer failed to reach at least 30 — and issued the Hornets their worst defeat of the season, a 72-51 loss in the 7A South Regional finals at Garrett Coliseum.
“It’s what I get most every game,” said Philon, the 6-foot-4 junior guard and Auburn commitment who came into the game averaging 35 points but made only 7 of 20 shots, including just 2 of 8 three-pointers. “We didn’t capitalize on the little things.”
And they didn’t handle the big things either as Baker (25-7) had no answer for regional MVP Thomas Dowd, the Wolves’ 6-foot-7 strong forward who chalked up 26 points and 21 rebounds.
“Nobody expected us to be here,” said Dowd, who is going to play collegiately at Troy.
And few expected Dothan (26-4) to dismiss the Hornets so easily. But Wolves coach Jeremy Bynum warned a few days before the game he would not abandon his tenacious man-to-man defense in favor of a zone to force Philon to seek points outside, where he was shooting only 34% from three-point range. In his last seven games, he splashed only 11 of 50 three-pointers.
Bynum was also aware nobody wearing a Baker jersey was averaging double figures except Philon.
“We had only two days to get ready and I called a lot of coaches and they told me how good he was,” Bynum said. “He was as good as the hype. We thought about playing a box-and-one and a diamond-and-one against him but I didn’t want my kids thinking too much.”
Instead, Bynum used man-to-man pressure on Philon from baseline to baseline and trapped him with double teams whenever he approached the lane.
“We weren’t going to let him beat us,” Bynum said. “If their other guys made shots, we’d live with that and go back to Dothan.”
Philon was seemingly snagged on barbed wire whenever he tried to drive to the basket and most of the loose balls and rebounds went to the Wolves, who outrebounded the Hornets 46-22 and outscored them 21-6 off second-chance points.
“We may not be the most talented team every night but we’re going to be the first ones on the floor and we’re going to rebound the ball,” Bynum said.
And when Philon drove and dished, Baker was spitting into the wind from outside, making just 6 of 30 three-pointers.
“They made it tough on us and didn’t give us many easy looks,” said Hornets coach David Armstrong, who emerged from the locker room after a lengthy attempt to console his team. “We missed some shots, some stuff that would have gone down most times. But they deserve to go to the final four.”
Forward Josh Flowers added 14 points for Baker while Dowd got scoring help from Mehkai Menefee, who added 22 points.
The Hornets led for only four minutes and struggled to 29% shooting — while Philon was 7 of 20 from the field, the rest of the team was 9 of 35. Meanwhile, Dothan shot 52% and outscored Baker 34-20 in the paint.
Wolves fans began sneering at Philon in the pregame warmups. Among the nicest utterances were “Airball!” when Philon missed a jumper and “Roll Tide! when he was introduced.
It didn’t get much better once the ball was thrown into the air, although the game was tied 12-12 after one period and the Hornets trailed just 28-24 at halftime.
Even Philon’s customary practice of changing shoes at halftime — “I was trying for a fresh start,” he said — didn’t help.
Dothan pryed the game open in the third period just after Philon dunked a loose ball to make it 45-41 and followed with a three-pointer to make it 50-44. Boyd responded with a three-pointer and two free throws to set off a 10-3 run for a 55-44 lead going to the fourth period.
The Wolves commanded the final period with a 17-7 run and Baker faded in the last 5:36 without a field goal.
“They ran two and sometimes three people at me and it was effective, especially toward the end of the third quarter,” Philon said. “They wouldn’t let me catch the ball.”
Armstrong pulled his starters in the final minute and Philon reclined on the bench, looked up at the scoreboard and put his arm around senior teammate Jaden Campbell.
Afterward, Armstrong hoped the defeat would push his team, which loses only two seniors, to a state championship in 2024.
“I don’t know how this is going to look going forward,” Armstrong said, “but if the players can take the pain they’re feeling in that locker room into their work for the next 12 months, there’s no way they lose this thing.”
Added Philon: “We’ll be back next year.”