The Hillcrest Patriots defeated the Hale County Wildcats 60-45, ending their 5-game winning streak. The Wildcats entered the game 5-0 and were enjoying one of their greatest starts of the year in a long time. Before the game, Hillcrest had a 7-3 record and was coming off a difficult Friday night loss to Northridge.

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This season, the Patriots are led by their star tandem of DJ Hamlett and Osa Alohan. Hillcrest advanced to the elite eight in the year prior before falling to longtime rival Paul Bryant. This team has already faced and will face challenges, particularly from teams who are not as vertically challenged as they are. Shah Hall, the former 6' 7" big man, graduated and advanced to the next level; thus, Hillcrest will need to discover strategies to handle teams that are significantly taller than they faced in Hale County.

"Hale County poses some problems with their length and quickness," head coach Scott Suttles said. "I thought we defended like we were capable of, and even though early on we had trouble getting into our offense, we got an 18-point lead at the half, and we were able to salt it away in the fourth quarter."

The Wildcats are off to one of their greatest starts in a long time. Guards and a few players at the big man position make up Hale County's fairly deep roster. Guards AJ Edwards and Tristan Travis, along with forward Gage Mayfield, lead this Wildcat group. Hale Co.'s quickness, swiftness, and amazing guard skills allow them to score shots quickly and with great versatility.

"They are a really good team," Suttles said. "They can go on runs quickly. You saw a couple of heat-check shots where they scored eight points in three possessions in 45–50 seconds. We got it up to 20, and it was 12 real quick. We knew they were capable of that."

The game's score doesn't accurately reflect how competitive it was in real time. Both squads were going at it and playing physically, but Hillcrest was able to capitalize on opportunities that came their way, but Hale Co. missed a number of their chances on shots that just didn't fall for them.

Hillcrest had gotten off to a wonderful start. A very strong Wildcat offense was having a lot of problems against the Patriots defense. forcing turnovers, finishing at the rim, and getting out for fastbreak opportunities. Both Hillcrest stars, Hamlett and Alohan, were aggressive early and found their shots. The Patriots are not the tallest team, with Hamlett being the tallest at 6 feet 3. The Patriots controlled the boards in this game, outrebounding them by a margin of 13, so the player's lack of height never really mattered.

In this game, neither side shot well from beyond the three-point line. Hale Co. shot 12% from distance, while Hillcrest shot 29%.

The Wildcats had chances to get back into the game. Despite being behind by double digits the entire game, the Hillcrest defense deserves praise for creating opportunities and causing mistakes. But the Hale Co. blew numerous chances and made good shots. Against a vertically challenged team, Edwards, Travis, and guard Kareem Ward Jr. all had lanes to the basketball, but their layups fell short. If the Wildcats went on a run in the second half, Hillcrest would typically stop that run and extend their lead after a missed shot.

For the Patriots, the unsung heroes were forward Paul Jones and guards Jordan Simmons and Joshua Williams. Outside of Simmons' 8 points and Williams scored 6 points, their stat lines won't accurately reflect the importance of their impact.

"I think we must develop some depth," Suttles said. "Jakari Andrews, who started for us last year and still gets minutes for us, struggled the last two weeks defensively because [Paul] Jones is guarding the biggest and strongest offensive player on the other team. He's learning; this is making him move his feet and guard guards, and that will pay dividends for him.

"We had guys like Rashad Everette and KJ 'Keaundra' Harris who came in and didn't get a lot of runs, but they earned in practice and didn't look skittish, and that's a good thing for their confidence going forward for sure," Suttles said.

When Hamlett was in foul trouble, someone other than Alohan had to assist with ball-handling duties, which is what Williams did in this game. He made effort plays on both sides of the ball, played strong defense, and was able to set up plays for his team.

Suttles had assigned Paul Jones the duty of covering the stronger big man on the opposition. Edwards, who is 6 feet 4 and has a very diverse skill set, presented a serious challenge to Jones. Jones, on the other hand, was able to hold his own by using his entire 225-pound frame to prevent the Wildcat bigs from getting to the paint and scoring if they did.

Hillcrest was particularly effective at getting to the foul line against Hale Co., particularly Alohan. He made nine out of 10 free throws, which were crucial to the Patriots' victory.

Alohan led the way with 20 points, followed by Hamlett with 15. Edwards led Hale County with 12 points, followed by Mayfield with 8 points and 2 blocks.

In their next two games, Hillcrest will travel to Hewitt-Trussville for a rematch before returning home on Friday night to play Holt. The team will then get ready to compete in the Daphne High School Holiday Hoops Tournament on Tuesday. Hale County's next games are against Central and ACA, then they go to Aliceville the following week.

Hillcrest vs Hale Co. Basketball

Gallery Credit: Jyeasha Nance

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