ATHENS — Russellville kept making things uncomfortable for top-seeded Athens in Monday night’s Class 5A, Area 16 tournament championship.
Athens would run out to a big lead, then the Golden Tigers would come back to get within striking distance of an upset.
It happened in the first half, and it happened in the second half as well.
Finally, reserve Keith Bridges put an end to the suspense. His 21-footer from the right wing with just under six minutes to play ended Russellville’s final rally, sending the Golden Eagles to a 59-43 area title-clinching win in their home gym.
It was Bridges’ only basket, and now Athens (23-7) hosts Cullman in Friday’s sub-regional winner. Russellville (10-15) heads to East Limestone for its sub-region game. Winners advance to next week’s Northwest Regional tournament at Wallace State-Hanceville.
After leading 27-23 at the half, Athens used a swarming press and an overpowering inside game to build a 20-point lead (47-27) after three quarters. Then, Russellville forced the issue with an 8-0 run to open the final quarter, quieting the home crowd. Suddenly, the Golden Tigers had momentum and Athens was on its heels.
At least until Bridges got the ball. The 5-foot-9 senior took a pass on the right wing and never hesitated before launching his momentum-killing 3-pointer.
“It was a big shot,” Tedford said. “We were about to put our press our team in the game and he’s not on our press team. About the time we decided to do that, he hit that three and it put me in a bind. His shot probably sealed the game. It zapped their momentum.”
Russellville coach Michael Smith agreed.
“He’s a role player and we knew he could shoot,” Smith said. “He hit the shot and it put them back up 15. If we get a stop there, it’s possible it could be a different ball game. But they responded like a good team does.”
Smith said turnovers and rebounding hurt the Golden Tigers.
“We had some costly turnovers, more than anything the offensive boards hurt us,” he said. “They are more athletic than we are.”
Athens had 12 second-chance points in the first three quarters. The Golden Eagles had another 19 points in the paint.
Nathaniel Potts led Athens with 13 points, doing damage from both inside and outside. Dedrick Stinnett added 10 points.
Jackson Smith led Russellville with 13 points. Caleb Robinson scored 11.
Athens closed the first quarter with a 9-0 run, including six points by Trey Potts, to take a 17-6 lead. The advantage peaked at 20-8 before Russellville rallied to within 27-23 at the break.
“We played really well to start the game and then we just quit guarding in the second quarter,” Tedford said. “That’s been our M.O. the past couple of game. We have to play four quarters. We were able to turn the heat up in second half and create some offense off that. “
Athens opened the second half on a 17-2 run and a late basket pushed the advantage to 47-27 at the end of three quarters.
It was a disappointing third quarter for Russellville after Smith stressed not allowing Athens to run up a big lead.
“We talked about it halftime that we couldn’t allow them to go on a run, and if we kept it close we’d have a chance,” Smith said. “The last time we played them over here they made a run in the third quarter. That’s something we have to overcome.”
Contact senior sports editor Gregg Dewalt at 256-740-5748 or email@example.com. Follow @greggdewalt on Twitter.