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Keith’s upset bid falls short

After surviving its largest speed bump this postseason, R.C. Hatch will return to Birmingham for a chance to bring back its fourth state title in four years.

Trence Askew hit a pair of free throws with 4.7 seconds left in the game to break a 42-42 tie and help the Bobcats earn a 44-42 win over Keith — the same team they beat for the area championship two weeks ago — in the Class 2A Central Regional championship game.

“(I thought), ‘if the first one goes down, the second one can go,’” said Askew. “If I make the first one, we know we’re going to win this thing. If I make the second, we’ve won this thing.”

Askew made them both, but the game did not end as easily as he hoped. Gerald Matthews quickly raced down the floor and hurled a layup attempt that overshot the rim as the buzzer sounded.

It was a fitting end to an evenly played game featuring rivals that met twice in the regular season and once already in the postseason. The game had 15 ties, and the lead changed hands 11 times. Neither team led by more than four points, save for an Ernest Strother jumper and Leanthony Smith 3-pointer that gave the Bobcats a 5-0 lead early in the first quarter.

R.C. Hatch (17-12) had a tougher road to Birmingham than they did the last three years. The Bobcats lost eight games over three state title seasons, but struggled for most of this year.

“This group is special,” said R.C. Hatch coach Homer Davis. “I’m so proud of this group because they didn’t have it easy and brought it back together and are peaking at the right time.”

Keith’s run was no easier. The Bears forfeited several wins due to playing with Rodney Ellis, an eighth grader, playing in more than 20 games during the season. The AHSAA stipulates that junior high players may play no more than 20 games between their junior high and varsity squads.

“It was a good run,” said Keith coach Tommy Tisdale. “We had the worst record in the playoffs, but the guys never let it get to them. We gave it our all, and that’s all you can ask for.”

Forrest Pasley led the Bears (10-20) with 22 points and 17 rebounds. Gerald Matthews added 16 points.

Strother led the Bobcats with nine points, and Smith and Clarence Black added eight apiece.