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U-SAVE-IT CLASSIC: AHS holds on vs. Mt. Zion, wins 4th straight

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

Albany -- Big Byrd made the play, the one that started the run.

And, oh, what a run it was.

There it was, Albany looking as good as it has looked all year (maybe better), ripping off 12 straight points to end the third, lifting the Indians to a 54-38 lead against Mt. Zion.

Nobody knew it at the time, but it would be just enough -- barely enough.

The Indians (4-3) did not score from the field in the fourth quarter, but hung on -- thanks to five free throws -- to beat the Bulldogs, 59-56, on Tuesday night in the U-Save-It Holiday Classic.

"It's just so frustrating,'' Albany coach Archie Chatmon said. "We just stopped doing what we were doing. I think we were playing not to lose the game, instead of playing to win the game. We started watching the clock, and forgot what we were supposed to do.''

Give Big Byrd -- that's Roscoe Byrd, an offensive lineman-turned-post player -- a big assist for sparking that run in the third. Of course, Chatmon loves the guys he calls his two "roly-polys" inside -- Byrd and Jontavious Morris, a pair of bruisers who have helped turn this season around for the Indians, winners of four in a row.

Both roly-polys had five points each, and both had six rebounds, and both of the big guys picked off key steals in a game that was tight early and late.

"I love watching those guys play,'' said Chatmon, who has a long-standing policy of not allowing his players to speak to the media. "I know we didn't play well in the fourth quarter, but in the end we found a way to win, and in the end that's what matters. The mark of a good team is finding a way to win. We can't lose sight of that.''

That's becoming a habit at Albany, where the Indians haven't been the same since knocking off Westover in overtime 10 days ago -- and in a good way. After an 0-3 start, Albany has ripped off four wins in a row, and that streak has Chatmon thinking his team may be ready to turn the corner.

"We won (both games in the U-Save-It),'' Chatmon said. "We looked like two different teams in the third and fourth quarter (Tuesday), but it's nice to learn and win. You're always talking about growing pains and learning (as you lose games). Well, it's nice to learn and win games.''

In the end, Albany had just enough to stop a tenacious Mt. Zion team that seemed to grow stronger with every Albany missed shot and turnover. The Class AAAA Bulldogs got a 3-pointer from Demarcus Robinson, who hit five 3s in the game, to start the fourth quarter and never slowed down. They closed to 57-54 when Rodney Booker had a putback with 1:00 left, and when Mt. Zion forced its eighth turnover in the quarter the Bulldogs had the ball with 54 seconds left with a chance to tie with a 3.

But Albany caught a break on a three-seconds call with 35 seconds left when Austin Smith stole the inbounds pass and hit a shot to close to 57-56 with 31 seconds left with a chance to knot the score with an and-one free throw.

He missed.

Albany's Rantiez Williams grabbed the rebound and the Indians milked the clock down to 14 seconds before Tim Pierce was fouled. He hit both free throws to make it a 59-56 game, and Robinson's final 3-point shot of the game skipped off the rim and into the hands of Morris.

Larry Sanford, who had a big first half, led Albany with 22 points, and Pierce added 10. Robinson finished with 20 for Mt. Zion.

The Indians will take it, and they won't look back.

"We want to get to the point where our players take the court with the (mindset) that we're supposed to win,'' Chatmon said. "We did find a way to win, and I'm hoping that when we come back in January that's the way they are thinking, and when we walk on the court they feel like we are supposed to win the game.''

It won't be hard to motivate the Indians. They meet Fitzgerald in a crucial Region 1-AA game on Jan. 4. Of course, Fitzgerald knocked Albany out of the region playoffs a year ago and ended the Indians' season.

But after Albany's four-game run, it looks more and more as if the season is just beginning for Chatmon, the roly-polys, Pierce and Sanford -- who looked like superstars at times during the U-Save-It -- and an Albany program that is suddenly finding just what it needs to win.