MONTGOMERY – LaFayette High is headed back to the Final Four for the second time in three seasons.
No. 9 LaFayette (23-5) punched their ticket to Birmingham today when they defeated No. 8 Francis Marion (21-7) in the Class 2A Central Regional finals here at Alabama State University, 61-54.
For the third straight contest, the Bulldogs used a strong fourth quarter to advance in the playoffs; they also got a big performance from sophomore guard Jatarvious Whitlow, who finished with a game-high 29 points and was named MVP of the Central Regional Tournament.
“I’m so proud of our kids for enduring today,” LaFayette coach Obadiah Threadgill said. “We faced a very good Francis Marion team and our kids fought through the adversity. It’s what these guys have been doing all year.”
Right from the start the Rams keyed on LaFayette forward Trevond Barnes, and Whitlow took advantage. He immediately made his presence felt, scoring the first points of the game on a long three-pointer. His dominance would continue throughout the first, as he racked up 13 points to put the Dogs ahead 17-14 after the opening quarter.
LaFayette maintained the advantage through the majority of the first half, but with 2:40 to play Francis Marion took their first lead 23-22. The lead would change hands three more times before Whitlow hit a shot with 48 seconds remaining to give the Bulldogs a 28-26 halftime edge.
Like it has been throughout the playoffs, the third quarter saw LaFayette struggle. Foul trouble and some questionable calls gave the Rams momentum and with 3:36 to play in the third, they regained the lead. The Bulldogs did benefit from two technical foul calls on Francis Marion, one of which sent Whitlow to the sidelines shaken up, but they still trailed 39-38 heading to the fourth.
Whitlow returned at the start of the quarter and one minute in, put LaFayette back on top. With the game tied at 45 with less than four minutes to play, Whitlow gave the Dogs a two-point edge with a jumper in the lane. Then moments later Kaminski Bledsoe sank two big free throws to extend the LHS lead to four points.
The momentum really shifted in the Bulldogs favor on the ensuing Rams’ possession when LaFayette forced a turnover and Quentin Ray hit a lay-up to put LaFayette up 51-45 with 1:46 to play.
Despite draining two long-range three-pointers Francis Marion could not catch back up. LaFayette sank 8-of-10 free throws over the final minute and a half to lock up the win and advance.
Bledsoe and Ray both finished with 10 points and Ray led the team with eight rebounds. Quentavious Whitlow had six points and Barnes scored four and had three blocks.
Along with Whitlow, Barnes was named to the Central Region All-Tournament Team.
LaFayette now moves on to the Class 2A Final Four on Monday at the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Complex. The Dogs will be matched up against the team that defeated them in the state championship game two years ago, Tanner.
“We try not to make it personal with these teams,” Threadgill said. “They are another team in our way. We try to prepare one game at a time. They may give us a little extra spice, but it isn’t too much more than we are already feeling right now.”
Along with the Bulldogs and Tanner, No. 7 Elba and No. 10 Vincent have also advanced to the Finals.
LaFayette and Tanner will tip off on Monday at 4:30 pm CST in Birmingham. The winner will advance to the 2A title game next Friday, Feb. 27 at 11 am.
*Full story (with additional quotes) will appear in next week’s print edition of The Sun.