Published 12:00 am Monday, March 10, 2003
LAFAYETTE, La. &045; The Cajundome is cavernous, the home of the final four in each of the state’s seven classes and the home of broken dreams and answered prayers.
Vidalia’s Vikings got a taste of it Monday in the opening night of the LHSAA’s Top 28 tournament, a taste Red River is awfully familiar with in its history on the court. The Vikings had trouble finding an offensive rhythm and couldn’t answer the Bulldogs’ inside game before dropping a 60-48 decision.
The loss ended the Vikings’ season at 26-6 after making their first trip to the Top 28 since the 1979 state championship team.
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&uot;My biggest fear was we’d be in awe and be intimidated by their height,&uot; Vidalia head coach Robert Sanders said. &uot;And that proved to be the reason from the second quarter on. Their inside height was something we didn’t have an answer for.&uot;
The Bulldogs (32-6) are back in the championship game for the first time since losing the 2000 championship to West St. John. That team was before consolidation, and the freshmen on that Coushatta team remembered that loss vividly.
&uot;I reminded the seniors when they were freshmen and we lost we were eating etoufee, and they had tears in their eyes,&uot; Red River head coach Keith Johnson said. &uot;I told them, ‘Stay with me, and I guarantee you before you graduate we’ll be back.’ And we’re here.&uot;
The Bulldogs are back and maybe bigger than ever, and the size was magnified when the Vikings’ Louis McNulty went to the bench early with foul trouble. That allowed Red River to exploit the inside, and the Vikings had to drop their traditional zone defense in the second half for a man-to-man setup in hopes of containing 6-6 senior Eric Babers.
&uot;When (McNulty) got in foul trouble, that altered our plans,&uot; Sanders said. &uot;Tony Hawkins was able to take a lot of shots and keep us in the game somewhat. They seemed to play a different type of game when he (McNulty) is in than when he is out. We just seem to have more confidence when he is in. He has been productive inside for most of the season.&uot;
The Bulldogs got a bucket from Babers with 49 seconds left in the third quarter to cap a 10-0 run and put the lead at 44-29. They went with more pressure in the third quarter out of their half-court set, and the Vikings finished the game with 16 turnovers to Red River’s eight.
Vidalia outside scoring threat Ajay Warner was held scoreless in the third quarter and one field goal the entire second half after scoring nine in the first half.
&uot;The half-court trap &045; we thought it was going to give them problems,&uot; Johnson said. &uot;We like to key on their best shooter, and that was 34 (Warner). We kept going to our strong side, and he had to work hard to get the ball.&uot;
Hawkins kept the Vikings within reach in the third quarter by scoring eight of the team’s 10 points, and he hit two free throws at the 6:20 mark to cut the lead to 45-36. McNulty then put in one of two free throws to cut the lead to 45-37 with 6:12 left as the Vikings started handling Red River’s pressure.
&uot;I think we did (have trouble) at first, but we got a little better with it,&uot; Sanders said.
The Bulldogs got a basket from Jeremy Crawford to stop the bleeding right after that, and Babers followed with a basket at the 4:50 mark to take a 49-37 lead.
Vidalia forward David Wilson &045; who finished with 12 points and 15 rebounds &045; put in a basket with 4:40 left to put the deficit at 49-39, but the Bulldogs got a three-point play and later two free throws from Babers to take a 54-39 lead with 3:55 left in the game.
Babers finished with 26 points and sank 12 of 19 shots from the free throw line.
&uot;Once we got the double-figure lead, we started holding the ball,&uot; Babers said. &uot;They were strong and physical (inside), and I was kind of frustrated. I think they dropped in that zone, and they couldn’t stop me. When they went to that man &045; I feel no man can stop me.&uot;
The Vikings started out strong against Red River’s man-to-man defense in the first quarter. Hawkins and Warner each tossed in a 3-pointer, and a Wilson bucket with 25 seconds left gave Vidalia a 12-8 lead heading into the second.
Babers got a dunk and later two free throws to tie the game up just over a minute in, but Hawkins hit a basket later for a 14-12 lead.
&uot;They were nervous,&uot; Johnson said. &uot;That (arena) played a factor in it, but it was more nerves than anything. Once they settled down and started playing, the shots starting to fall.&uot;
Jeremy Crawford hit a 3-pointer, and Babers added another three-point play with 3:31 left as the Bulldogs started to pull away and prove their coach right by getting back to the title game.
Crawford’s 3-pointer with 2 seconds left gave the Bulldogs a 23-20 lead at the half and a load of confidence they’d
have another game to play on Saturday.
&uot;Coach looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘We’ll be back,’&uot; Babers remembered. &uot;We’re back. We lost one, and now we’re trying to win one.&uot;