DOTHAN – The Monroe County Tigers owned the paint Saturday in a Class 4A boys South Regional semifinal, but the rest of the court belonged to the St. James Trojans’ defense.
The Trojans forced 23 Tiger turnovers and limited Monroe County to 28 percent shooting in the second half in a 54-44 win at the Dothan Civic Center.
“It was a struggle all night. I feel very fortunate (we) were able to get through some difficult times, maintain the lead and close out the ball game,” Trojans head coach Nigel Card said. “Our defense has been outstanding all year. We play defense well until the ball is shot.”
The win is historical for the Trojans, who reached a regional final for the first time in program history. Prior to this visit, St. James reached only one other regional semifinal — in 1994.
“It’s fun. It’s different. We want to enjoy this moment,” said Trojans guard Jaylen McCoy.
“It’s all new to us. We’re playing hard. We just want to play one more game of high school basketball,” Trojans forward Jalen Harris added. “There’s nothing else like it.”
The turning point of the game came early in the second quarter when the Trojans launched a 13-2 run to give themselves a 24-14 lead. A 3-point play from Harris put St. James up 14-12, and McCoy added two more 3-point plays to sustain the spurt.
Monroe County sliced the lead to 26-20, but McCoy and Harris hit back-to-back baskets to extend the lead back to 10 at 30-20.
The Tigers’ Jameel Merrill hit a buzzer-beating layup to make the score 30-22 St. James at the half.
Both teams struggled offensively in the second half, particularly in the third quarter. St. James finally got untracked and built a 36-23 thanks to four points from Harris and led 38-30 after three quarters.
Monroe County made a small threat against St. James in the fourth quarter, whittling the lead to 40-35 on a Jhacques Gulley basket with 4:55 left in the game.
But St. James’ pressure on the outside — and the inside — turned out to be too much. St. James forced six turnovers in the fourth quarter and got a few baskets in transition to push the lead to double-digits.
“At the beginning of the year, it was a (problem),” Tigers head coach Anthony Hayes said. “We got better as we (continued) on, but it came back and revisited us tonight. Twenty-three turnovers against a team that’s been solid all year, it’s just hard to win like that.”
McCoy scored the next seven St. James points to give the Trojans a 47-37 advantage with 2:35 left, and the Trojans held on from there.
The St. James defense was tough inside, too, even though the Trojans surrendered 12 offensive rebounds in the second half. St. James held the Tigers to 7-of-25 shooting in the final two stanzas.
“I believe we altered enough shots,” Harris said. “We play some good team defense at times, but we knew we were a good team coming in and we had to play our game.”
McCoy led St. James with 21 points, while Harris added 18. Deandre Robinson had 13 points to pace Monroe County.
St. James will face the winner of Clarke County-Straughn at 11 a.m. Wednesday with a spot in the state tournament on the line.