By JIMMY WIGFIELD
MONTGOMERY — When Cottage Hill Christian Academy’s crestfallen players left locker room 7 in the dank catacombs of Garrett Coliseum late Tuesday night, they were told morning would still come.
But the mourning will linger for a while.
The No. 1-ranked Warriors saw a 15-point lead evaporate and had their mostly unchallenged expedition toward a state championship end abruptly when Tyler Thomas missed a free throw with 0.7 seconds left in overtime and Hillcrest-Evergreen dug its last fingernail into a 72-71 victory in the 3A South Regional finals.
Cottage Hill got all it could have hoped for in the last second of overtime when Thomas — its leading scorer and an unruffled senior with nerves that could handle nitroglycerin astride a pogo stick — calmly collected his brother’s missed three-pointer when it banged off the front of the rim, put it where it counted and got fouled.
Trailing by a point, Thomas, the best free-throw shooter among the starters, went to the line to tie it and force a second overtime. But with loud jeers from Jaguars fans echoing through the arena, the basket spat out his free throw to the left like a wilted sunflower seed.
After missing the foul shot, Thomas was disconsolate, falling to his knees and pressing his face to the floor. His father, Cottage Hill coach Adam Thomas, gently escorted his son off the court, a towel over his head, but he sobbed all the way to the locker room, his father’s arm folded around him in compassion.
“That’s the tough part,” coach Thomas said after a lengthy, emotionally wrenching postgame meeting with his players. “It’s about family. I’ve got two boys on this team but this team is my family. It’s hard to see them hurting, to see everything they worked for come to an end like that.
“Tyler’s got the weight of the world on him right now. He’s not thinking about what he did good, he’s thinking about what he could have done better.”
Tyler Thomas, a 6-foot-6 senior forward, did plenty of good things, finishing with 20 points and 19 rebounds. His twin 6-6 brother Trent Thomas added 13 points and 11 rebounds and Shadrick Toodle had 21 points before twisting his ankle on a putback with 1:53 left in overtime and being carried off the floor. Toodle, a 6-4 junior guard and the only starter returning next season, was 8 of 13 from the field and made 5 of 8 free throws.
Tyler Thomas had made a pair of free throws with 1:05 to go in overtime to tie it 69-69 but Cottage Hill was just 2 of 9 from the field in the fourth period and 2 of 6 in overtime. The Warriors didn’t get a clean shot at the basket until half the overtime period had drained away when Tonereo Rowser missed a layup after a steal.
Cottage Hill — which had won 11 of its last 12 games and finished 24-4 — led by as many as 15 points late in the second period before Hillcrest started to solve the Warriors’ ever-changing zone defenses and threaded seven 3-pointers to vaporize the big deficit.
While Cottage Hill led for 23:15 of the game’s 32 regulation minutes, it was 0 of 10 from three-point range, including Rowser’s miss at the end of regulation, and made only 21 of 40 free throws. The Warriors struggled to 63% shooting at the line this season, one of their few weaknesses, and Tyler Thomas was the best among the starters at 75%.
But with Cottage Hill leading 31-16 late in the second period, there was no indication it would break off an axle before reaching the state final four in Birmingham and maybe not even then. It had lost only to ranked 7A powers McGill-Toolen and Baker and to 5A LeFlore by a combined five points while winning 12 games by 15 or more points, nine of them by at least 20.
“From top to bottom, this team was definitely built to go all the way but you’ve got to have everything go right,” coach Thomas said.
It didn’t. The Warriors got outscored by 21 points from three-point range and missing 19 free throws was too much to overcome, even after outscoring the Jaguars 48-28 in the paint, 26-16 on second-chance points and 18-8 on the fast break.
“Up 15, we might have had a little letdown but they made some good plays and they knocked down some outside shots,” coach Thomas said of Hillcrest (20-5). “The free throws plagued us in the first half. We made some the second half but not enough. We’ve played in open-air floors before. It wasn’t a depth-perception thing. We just didn’t have it tonight from the line.”
Region MVP Christian Locke led the Jaguars with 19 points and Robert Simpson added 15 for Hillcrest, which will make its sixth trip to the state final four.
Meanwhile, Cottage Hill loses seven cherished seniors — including four starters in the Thomas twins, forward Kelvon McBride and guard Rowser — who will find glory in the years ahead, coach Thomas said.
“I’ll go to war with these guys any day,” he said. “They’ll forever be my guys. All these guys are gold and they’ve all got a great future ahead of them.”