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No, 4 Vigor fights hard but falls in finals to No. 1 Fairfield, 69-65

Vigor’s bench reacts after the Wolves fell to No. 1-ranked Fairfield 69-65 in the Class 5A state finals Saturday at Legacy Arena in Birmingham. (Helen Joyce/Call News)

 

Vigor’s Terrel Johnson fires a shot against Fairfield Saturday on the way to 22 points in his high school finale. (Helen Joyce/Call News)

An emotional Brandon Purifoy leaves the court after Vigor fell to Fairfield 69-65 Saturday in Birmingham. Purifoy’s ankle injury was a key factor in the Wolves’ loss. (Helen Joyce/Call News)

 

 

 

By JIMMY WIGFIELD

BIRMINGHAM — A lot of things went wrong for Vigor in its 69-65 loss to No. 1-ranked Fairfield in the Class 5A state championship game Saturday at Legacy Arena but the most excruciating of all could be what happened the day before the game.

Defensive specialist Brandon Purifoy injured his ankle during a practice at Vestavia Hills and without him, the No. 4-ranked Wolves couldn’t quite get their fangs into Tigers star guard and state tournament MVP Josiah Jones.

Jones scored 14 points but inflicted a series of wounds to Vigor in the fourth period that, added up, made the Wolves totter just enough to make the difference in lifting the Blue Map or accepting the runner-up red one.

The loss of Purifoy — he played just three minutes Saturday — came at the worst time for Vigor and led to a sleepless pregame night for Wolves coach Jairus Jackson, who was already tossing and turning over tossing the ball away and turning it over against Fairfield’s dreaded press, which forced 52 turnovers and outscored opponents 62-49 off them in the last four games.

“It was a freak thing,” Jackson said of Purifoy’s injury. “Nobody touched him, he just took a bad step. He’s our defensive stopper. We had planned to use him to guard (Jones).”

The insomnia led to wide-awake nightmares but his team’s tenacity kept it close.

“It was really tough last night,” Jackson said. “This game meant a lot. All I could think about was what we’re going to do if they do this? What am I going to do about Brandon Purifoy?”

Free of Purifoy, Jones began setting small brushfires in Vigor’s defense in the fourth period and by the time the Wolves snuffed them out, it was too late.

The Tigers led 48-46 going in the fourth period, then Jones took over, scoring six points — including a spectacular scooping layup and three-point play that drew blood — a steal that led to another basket and an entry pass for yet another goal that helped Fairfield build a 62-52 lead with 4½ minutes to go.

Vigor cut the lead to 64-61 and 68-65 but in the last 4:33 the Wolves were just 5 of 12 from the field and missed four 3-pointers, a layup and a pair of 2-point jumpers.

Meanwhile, the Tigers — who finished 29-2 with a 20-game winning streak — wobbled to the Blue Map ceremony, missing 11 free throws in the final 2:53.

“I kept telling the guys during the timeouts that they were going to miss, that the pressure was coming on them,” Jackson said. “We could have got them if we had stayed a little closer earlier in the fourth quarter.”

Vigor had a chance to the end, trailing 68-65 with 7.3 seconds left after Jordan Clark’s driving layup, but Fairfield’s Jamaria Hamilton made the second of two free throws to put the game out of reach of a tying 3-pointer.

“I was a bit nervous,” Hamilton said, “but I knew I wasn’t going to miss both of them.”

The Wolves (28-6) trailed for all but 4:45 in a game with six lead changes and still came agonizingly close to winning their first state basketball championship in their 13th trip to the state tournament and their first appearance in the finals.

Terrel Johnson completed his high school career with 22 points but he never got into a rhythm from outside against the Tigers’ man-to-man defense.

“We felt if he gets his, he gets it,” Fairfield coach Maurice Ford said. “It’s hard to stop a good player. I think we did a good job not letting him go off and score 32.”

Aslan Jones added 20 points but Vigor fell behind by as many as 11 points in the second period when the Tigers started slashing the Wolves’ man-to-man defense with lay-ups and lay-ins, which also let them unleash their press. For much of the second period, Vigor appeared rushed even when it broke the press and set up in the halfcourt.

Fairfield’s pressure — whether man-to-man from the inbounds or trapping at halfcourt — led to a 17-6 advantage in points off nine turnovers in the first half and a 21-18 edge off 12 turnovers for the game.

The Tigers also broke down the Wolves’ interior defense, making 24 of 38 shots inside the three-point arc and shooting at 58%.

“Their defense is really tough but I liked the matchups,” Jackson said. “We made some errors we could have been better at. … They do a good, sound job. We needed to stay within the game plan. We got out of it there trying to break their press.”

Ford was supremely confident in his defense’s ability to separate from Vigor.

“We can defend,” Ford said. “I’ll play anybody anywhere anytime. We had composure. We’ve been battled tested all year. We knew we could play defense. That’s how you win championships.”

But the Wolves still scored 65 points against a defense that had squeezed opponents under 55 in 16 of the last 19 games.

And Jackson had a secret weapon, even without Purifoy. He deployed a sagging 2-3 zone in third period to stop Fairfield’s penetration, which also kept the Tigers from jumping into their press, and Vigor cut the lead to 48-46 going into the fourth period.

“We had the zone in our back pocket,” Jackson said. “It was a curveball we were going to use to throw them off and it worked.”

The Wolves kept the game close by making 6 of 24 three-pointers, with Aslan Jones making three. But Johnson, a 6-2 forward who averaged 23.5 points in his last four games and had shot at 50% from three-point range, went 0 of 4 outside the arc.

Afterward, he kept his head buried in a white towel much of the time after the game, fighting off tears long enough to call Jackson a needed father figure in his life.

“He told me what to do, showed me right from wrong,” Johnson said.

In the end, the rights far outweighed the wrongs in the Wolves’ season.

“This sets the bar,” Jackson said. “It’s very hard to get to this point. … We came a long way this season. If somebody had told me at the beginning of the season that we’d be in the state championship game with a chance to win it, I’d have said, ‘Whoa.’”

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