Wildcats take down No. 7 Sumter for Sweet 16 berth

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

COLUMBIANA – Celebration ensued with students in the center of the court and a massive flag bearing the letters “SC” for Shelby County after the Wildcats clinched a spot in the Sweet 16 of the Class 5A playoffs with a 68-56 win over No. 7 Sumter Central.

Shelby County got double-digit points from Maggie West, Skye Knighten-Lilly and Aaliyah Cotton to clinch its berth in the Regional semifinals against Marbury at 9 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 16, at Alabama State University.

In the first quarter against the Jaguars, Shelby County was able to use a balanced attack to jump out to a dominating start.

Thanks to seven points from West, six from Nataley Whitner, five from Knighten-Lilly and four from Madison Purcell, the Wildcats were able to post 24 points in the opening quarter.

A big reason for that success was the defense forcing turnovers, which led to easy fast-break opportunities and layups. The defensive effort not only led to 24 points on the offensive end, but also helped Shelby County limit Sumter to nine points in the opening period as they flew out of the gates to a 15-point advantage.

Sumter knew it had to play a bit more aggressive on the defensive end in the second quarter and the hustle showed off early in the period. The Jaguars were able to go on an 8-3 run to cut the lead to 10 points midway through the quarter.

With the defense playing so high up in the frontcourt, it allowed the Wildcats to get around defenders with back-door cuts, which worked every time.

Eventually Shelby County was able to extend its lead to 36-19 because of that, but thanks to a 3-pointer right at the buzzer from the Jaguars, the lead was cut to 36-22 at the half.

While both teams made halftime adjustments during the break, they seemed to solely be focused on improving the offensive side of the ball.

In a trend that continued for much of the second half, the two teams started a fast-paced game that featured a back-and-forth scoring affair. In the first 4:13 of the third quarter, they had combined for 21 points.

The Jags were able to cut into the deficit slightly, but after 36 combined points in the quarter, Shelby County still held a 53-41 lead heading to the fourth quarter.

That fast pace continued into the final eight minutes of the game as the teams combined for 14 more points in the first 3:22 of the fourth quarter.

Sumter was able to cut the lead to 10 points at some point, but just never could get over the hump and cut the deficit to less than 10 points.

While not the best, the Wildcats went on to knock down eight of their 15 free throws down the stretch to cement the 12-point 68-56 win.

West led Shelby County with 23 points in the win, while Knighten-Lilly added 17 points and Cotton had 11 points. Whitner had a strong game as well with nine points of her own.