HANCEVILLE – In 1999 Justin Henley was the hero of Hatton, hitting the game winning free throws to defeat Pickens County and send them to the Final four.
22 years later Henley returned to lead the Hornets back to the Final Four once again, this time as head coach.
Hatton knocked off Sheffield Friday morning in a thriller 50-47, earning their first trip to the Final Four since 99.
“It’s unbelievable. Maybe in a few days I can find words to describe it,” said Henley. “I’m so proud of these kids they just played their tail off. We got down but they just continued to fight.”
Like many of their recent contests, it wasn’t without plenty of drama. Hatton trailed the first three quarters, getting down by as many as 14 in the second. But as they have all postseason, the Hornets found a way to win.
“It’s just our toughness,” Henley said. “it’s what we’ve tried to instill in them since day one, just that ability to keep fighting. Kids these days get so emotional with all the highs and the lows of a game, but you just got to keep playing and we’ve been able to do that recently.”
Hatton cut the lead to 26-18 by halftime before Sheffield extended it back to 32-20 early in the third. Hatton then went on their best run of the game, cutting their lead to 34-32 by the end of the third quarter.
“I thought if we could just get over the hump we’d be alright but we struggled to get there,” said Henley. “We finally got over the hump in the third but they just answered back. Luckily our guys just kept fighting.”
Multiple players played a key factor in the Hornets’ second half comeback. Jaxson Mitchell had two clutche three pointers, while Braden Stafford hit the go ahead shot with 45 seconds left to finish with 10 points. Possibly the biggest impact came from Kris O’Dell. In a play reminiscent of LeBron James’ block in the 2016 NBA finals, O’Dell chased down a Sheffield defender, blocked his shot then turned it into a three-point play on the other side. He finished with 12 points, 10 of which came in the second half.
“We were down and I knew we couldn’t let them get an easy score,” O’Dell said.
In the end though, it was Ridge Harrison that made the biggest impact, finishing with a game high 16 points. A four-year starter and a Hatton man to his core, leading the Hornets to the Final Four was a dream come true to him.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” Harrison said. “For me to be able to do this for this community, it’s everything I’ve ever wanted.”
Hatton will take on Lanett in the Final Four on Wednesday. In meantime Henley will be soaking in all the excitement of leading his alma mater back to Birmingham.
“I’m so happy to be able to do this for this community because there’s so many great people here, some that I’ve known for a long time,” Henley said. “I’m so excited for us and the girls to be going, it’s going to be a good time.”