The Belgreen Bulldogs are headed to the Final Four in Birmingham for the first time since 2000 after beating reigning state champion Pickens County 73-58 in the Northwest Regional finals Thursday night.
Pickens County focused a lot of defensive attention on Belgreen point guard Will Bonner, leaving three-point sharpshooter Scout Bragwell with many open looks.
Bragwell is one of the most accurate three-point shooters in AHSAA history, and he made Pickens County pay dearly. Bragwell buried six of eight shots from beyond the arch at critical times during the game.
“I was in a zone, the crowd was wild, and I just fed off of it,” said the senior shooting guard. “This the first time since 2000 Belgreen has gotten to Birmingham.
“This is what every team at Belgreen has worked for. To be the team to do it is amazing. Hopefully we are not finished.”
For the Bulldogs to reach their ultimate goal, they will have to go through Notasulga Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. at Bill Harris Arena in Birmingham.
“We want to be the team to win state,” said Bragwell. “We had an amazing crowd tonight that will do anything for us. They are our sixth man. It is hard not to play well when they are behind you.”
Although a veteran coach, it will be Marty Cooper’s first trip to the AHSAA Final Four.
“First, I just want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for this opportunity,” said Cooper. “I am so blessed to be a part of this team and this community. I didn’t go seeking this job; it came to me. I couldn’t be happier for this team and community. They deserve it.”
Cooper knew facing an athletic team like Pickens County would be a challenge so he adjusted his usual defensive game plan.
“We are usually a man-to-man team,” Cooper explained, “but we just are not athletic enough to guard a team like that. We went to a 1-2-2 zone. We had some other things prepared, but what we were doing was working, so we stuck with it.
“There were a few spurts when we didn’t rebound really well, but other than that we did a really good job,” Cooper added. “The whole goal was to keep them from driving into the lane. I knew they would make some three’s, but we couldn’t let them make layups.”
One player who contributed considerably to that defensive effort was senior Isac Willingham.
“I try to bring the intensity to the defensive end of the court,” said Willingham. “I try to get everyone pumped up.
“It is really easy to go out there with your brothers and compete,” Willingham said. “It was really fun. It was just a great experience. We finally got the win at Wallace, and now we are going to Birmingham.”
With the game tied 10-10 with just under a minute to go in the first quarter, Bragwell hit two straight three-pointers in the closing seconds to give Belgreen a 16-10 lead.
Bonner opened the second quarter with a quick drive to the basket and layup to extend the Bulldog lead to 18-10. Bonner got another easy basket at the 4:47 mark to give Belgreen a 10-point lead 24-14.
Pickens County made a flurry of baskets midway through the second quarter to cut Belgreen’s lead to one point, 27-26, but Collin Bonner made a three with just under a minute to go in the second quarter and a layup with 10 seconds to go to give Belgreen a 34-27 lead.
Another three-pointer by Bragwell and a subsequent steal and layup by Will Bonner gave Belgreen a 49-36 lead with just more than two minutes to go in the third quarter. A three-pointer late in the third quarter by Bragwell gave the Bulldogs a comfortable lead, 59-30, as Belgreen held on for the win in the fourth quarter.
Bragwell led Belgreen with 24 points and five assists. Will Bonner added 20 points and six assists. Collin Bonner finished the game with 17 points and eight rebounds. Willingham had six points, seven rebounds, and three assists.
Rounding out the scoring for Belgreen were Austin James with four points and Canaan Stough with two points.
Belgreen finished the game outscoring Pickens County 46-28 in the paint and 16-10 in points off turnovers. Belgreen shot 61.2 percent from the field in the game. The Bulldogs are 23-2.