Gilbert carries Shelby Academy to AISA title

Published 8:28 pm Thursday, February 19, 2009

It appeared as if Thursday’s state championship victory was personal to Shelby Academy’s Sean Gilbert. With four minutes to play in the game, his team was down by six, 31-25, but that’s when Gilbert took over with an MVP performance, as he helped flip the scoreboard and lead the Raiders to their second AISA Class 1A boys’ basketball state championship, beating Warrior, 38-32.

Gilbert, a senior transfer from Montevallo, hit a 3-pointer with 3:39 to play that cut the lead in half. He followed with another three and a 5-of-6 performance from the charity stripe to take the win.

“The first three got us going and got our emotion back up,” Shelby head coach Kevin Smith said. “It gave us a little confidence on our offense that we were running.”

Gilbert, who hit the game-winning lay up to beat Cornerstone on Wednesday, struggled from the free throw line in the semifinal, declaring after the game that he was headed home to work on his shot.

“I knew I had to go home and work on it. I knew what I had to do to make the free throws, so I just had to take my time and concentrate,” Gilbert said.

After looking at film, Smith suggested a slightly higher arch on his shot. It worked, including his final free throw, which bounced off the iron, straight up and in.

“I think he got it going in his head that he wanted a state championship, and he wasn’t going to lose it at the free throw line,” Smith said.

Gilbert’s 11 points in the final three minutes was more than either team had in the first half, as the two teams entered halftime tied, 9-9.

Warrior started the game on the run, forcing Shelby to keep up to their tempo, which was full of poor shooting and sloppy ball handling.

“Come on now, slow it down,” one Warrior fan yelled late in the first quarter.

Slow is exactly what Shelby wanted as Sharod Fowler’s lay up attempt to end the quarter ran into a 6-foot-4, 285-pound brick wall named Bobby Sexton. The turnover ended the quarter and helped give Shelby its first lead of the game, 6-5, to start the second quarter with a basket from Gilbert, who finished the game with 20.

It took until the second half before either team could correct their game, as the two combined for 25 turnovers in the first half.

Early in the second-half, Warrior’s speed turned into offense, scoring seven unanswered points to take a 16-11 lead with 4:20 to go in the third. Warrior maintained its lead until Gilbert’s run in the fourth.

“We played good defense (all game) but we’d get stops and turn it right back over,” Smith said. “We weren’t capitalizing off our defense, but in the fourth quarter we were finally able to do that.”

The championship comes six years after Shelby won its only other boys’ basketball state title in 2003, when Smith was an assistant for James Knowles. Smith said he thought his team had a chance to make a run this year, but after a few players not coming out for the team that he thought would and losing leading scorer Chad King at Christmas due to transfer, things became questionable.

“A lot of people doubted us all the way through,” Smith said. “People thought if anybody was going to have a chance out of Shelby County it was Cornerstone. We kind of laid low and played under the current and let them get all of the press, and they deserve it. They were a great team and JV’s a great player, but I think a lot of people were focused on that.”

Shelby (27-7) was the only team to beat Cornerstone (28-2) this season, including in the state semifinal Wednesday after a missed 3-pointer by CCS star JV McKinney.

“If JV hits that three yesterday at the end of the game, we’re sitting down here watching him play,” Smith said. “We caught a lot of breaks, but that’s what you do on championship teams, just try to put yourself in position to win, and we were fortunate.”

Jason McDaniel and Jacob Lumpkin joined Gilbert and McKinney on the All-Tournament Team, as well as Fowler and Major Burton, who led Warrior with 18 points in the final. Central-Christian’s Bryant Rawls was also selected to the team.