By PATRICK CASEY
The Walton Braves boys basketball team earned a trip to the state playoffs in Class 4A with an overtime victory against Marianna on Friday night and came within a missed three-point shot of winning the District 1 title against Pensacola Catholic on Saturday night in the tourney final.
Walton fell behind the host Crusaders 23-8 after one quarter of play as Catholic came out on fire, hitting 8-of-11 shots to force the Braves to play catch-up for most of the rest of the night.
The Pensacola squad stretched the lead to 33-17 at the half as Walton continued to struggle from the floor, hitting only 6-of-25 shots in the first half.
The Braves began their rally in the third quarter as senior DeShun Tucker scored 10 of his 27 points in that frame, helping the Braves close the gap to 39-32.
Walton continued the rally with pressure defense forcing Catholic turnovers that Tucker converted into another 12 points in the fourth quarter. Senior Terrell Campbell added two key baskets in the lane while the Crusaders missed free throws at the other end, to the tune of just 6-of-13 shooting from the charity stripe, to help the Braves’ comeback.
Walton was able to tie the game in the final two minutes but gave up a basket to fall behind 51-49 in the final 20 seconds. The Braves were able to work the ball up the floor, wanting to get it into Tucker’s hands, but Marianna had him well covered. Ken Randolph got a decent look from NBA three-point range and hoisted a shot that wasn’t quite long enough and clanged off the rim as time expired.
Alex Campbell finished the night second in scoring with six points as he made a pair of clutch shots from behind the arc in the game. The Braves had trouble finding another player with a hot hand other than Tucker as they lost for the 15th time in 22 tries against the Crusaders in their bomb-shelter gymnasium that is a questionable venue for any tournament event.
Quan Moorer led the Crusaders(16-10) with 14 points as he hurt the Braves on the interior with Nic Bell scoring all 11 of his points in the hot-shooting first half for the home team.
Walton got to the final after a scintillating 64-57 overtime victory against Marianna that saw the Braves earn their first win against the Bulldogs in three tries this season. Senior Ken Randolph had 21 points and knocked down six key free throws in overtime to help the Braves hold off a rally by the desperate Jackson County team. DeShun Tucker added 20 points as Walton led early, fell behind after three quarters, then rallied to take the lead in the fourth period.
Walton owned the overtime period after falling behind in the first minute as they posted a 17-10 scoring margin, hitting 8-of-9 free throws while getting baskets from four different players over the four-minute span.
Marianna tied the game in regulation as Warren McCord’s jumper from the lane bounced around on the Pensacola Catholic rim as time expired, falling through right after the buzzer sounded to force an extra four minutes of competition.
Marianna had the ball with a minute to play and the score tied at 45-all but DeShun Tucker stole a pass and drew a foul on his shot attempt to head to the line with a chance to give Walton the lead. The senior drilled two shots for a 47-45 advantage and Marianna quickly worked the ball up the floor. The Bulldogs missed their next shot and Tucker was fouled again as he drove to the other end, but this trip to the free throw line ended in a pair of missed shots and the Bulldogs grabbed the rebound. Coach Travis Blanton burned a timeout with 20 seconds left, then saw the ball deflected out of bounds by a Braves defender with just 2.2 seconds left in the game as the Bulldogs drove into the lane for the tying shot. After two more timeouts by the Bulldogs, McCord delivered his clutch shot to keep Marianna alive.
Walton led the Bulldogs 26-19 at halftime as the Braves hit 11-of-22 shots in the first half to build a lead. Marianna erupted in the third quarter for a 15-6 scoring advantage to take a 34-32 margin into the fourth quarter with Walton hitting only 2-of-13 shots from the field over that eight minute period.
Marianna hit only 24-of-62 shots in the Catholic gymnasium on the night and had more ball-handling issues than the Braves. Walton packed its defense into a 1-2-2 zone to try and stop the Bulldogs size advantage and despite a lack of calls by the officials in the trenches, found a way to get the win and break a four-game losing streak to the #2-seed.
Walton (16-9) will travel to Tallahassee to face Florida High on Thursday in the opening round of the Class 4A state playoffs at 6 p.m. The Seminoles are an experienced bunch that features a roster that includes nine seniors.
Team Notes: The Braves qualified for the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season when they lost at Marianna in the first round 59-35. Walton is 7-16 in 16 trips to the state playoffs with their last victory a 75-50 decision over Taylor County at home on Feb. 21, 2006. Walton coach Brad West is in his third season at the helm of the program and holds a record of 37-39. DeShun Tucker scored his 1,000th career point for the Braves in the fourth quarter of the Marianna game and now has 1,033. He is just the fifth Braves player to cross the 1,000 point threshold since 1988. Davonn Fields(2,209), Anthony Troupe (1,296), James Towery (1,288) and Darryl McGhee(1,103) are the other four. Walton defeated Florida High 67-46 in DeFuniak Springs in the only previous playoff meeting between the two schools in a first round contest during the 2004-05 season.