Daily photo by Emily Saunders|
Decatur senior guard Rico Pickett and the Red Raiders play John Carroll High in the Class 5A Final Four in Birmingham on Friday.
Decatur knows how to focus under lights on the big stage
By Brooke Milam
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BIRMINGHAM — When the Decatur Red Raiders are playing at their best you can see it on their faces. A fancy dunk from Rico Pickett is usually answered with an earth-shaking slam from teammate Jarodiaus Willingham.
G Redus' applause on the court is as enthusiastic as anyone in the Raider Nation crowd, and Rolando McClain practically roars when he fights for a rebound.
They celebrate each other's game, expecting the same kind of response from the Decatur fans, and they get what they ask for. The talent has been there for years, but what Red Raiders coach Jamie Lee is pleased to see is that his team has learned when to turn on the merriment and when to remain focused. "They've learned how to play in these big games. They've learned how to perform," Lee said. "It's fun to watch."
Chasing the Class 5A crown, Decatur (27-5) will play its biggest game of the year to date when it meets John Carroll (30-5) in the semifinals Friday at 10:30 a.m. at Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
The winner will face the winner of Erwin (21-9) vs. Williamson (31-2) in the state championship game Saturday at 7.
Lee describes his players' animated court presence as "a lot of passion", saying "they love to play the game."
And although Lee agrees that his team's passion can be both a positive and a negative, he said the Red Raiders have learned to use their intensity for good down the postseason stretch.
"They've matured and developed a sense of urgency about them in the past few weeks," Lee said. "They love to be out there under the lights with people cheering for them."
They'll face a familiar foe in Friday's semifinals.
Decatur and John Carroll have split their last couple of contests dating back to last year's sub-regional game.
John Carroll ended Decatur's season last year with a 65-51 win in the 6A sub-regional and Decatur beat John Carroll 69-60 this season in the Martin Luther King Classic on Jan. 15.
And even though Decatur took the most recent contest, Lee said his team is well aware of the Cavaliers' capabilities. "I think our guys are confident but cautious," Lee said.
"They know what a good program John Carroll is."
With the Cavaliers' players and coaches watching, Decatur manhandled Muscle Shoals 70-43 in the Northwest Regional finals. The Red Raiders also beat West End-Birmingham 53-32 in the regional semifinals, won a sub-regional game over Cullman, as well as area tournament games over Russellville and Muscle Shoals.
The Red Raiders led by eight or more points heading into the final period of three-out-of-five of those high stakes contests — a change from the fourth-quarter comeback theme that had become routine for Decatur during the regular season.
"We're putting teams away early, and we hadn't been doing that," Willingham said.
Like most good teams, Decatur has come on strong in the postseason and has played its best on the biggest stages. Lee agreed that his Red Raiders have risen to the occasion of postseason urgency and have developed the team concept to the point that they can play with confidence.
"As long as we're going to play like that, we can't lose," McClain said, following Decatur's rout of Muscle Shoals in the regional finals. "Coach has been talking to us about not playing on the big stage in the past and we wanted to prove we can."
Headlining a senior class 10-strong, Northwest Regional most valuable player Rico Pickett is averaging 18.3 points per contest for Decatur, while Willingham follows with 13.5 points per game.
McClain, Redus and Mark Mason all average between nine to 10 points a game, while Drei Marthaler is about six points a game.
Lee said he's seen an unselfishness in his team down the stretch and a willingness to contribute where needed that has been the key to their success of late.
"I think overall they're focused and playing with a lot of determination on the defensive end," Lee said.
On the defensive end against the Cavaliers, Decatur will have to handle 6-foot-3 junior guard Andrew Steele who is scoring a team-leading 15.76 points per game along with a team-best 7.8 rebounds per contest for John Carroll.
He is the brother of Alabama junior point guard Ronald Steele.
Senior 6-foot-2 forward DeMarcus Covington pulls down 5.9 rebounds per game.
Decatur's goals at the beginning of the season were simple. They were the same accomplishments that most teams aspire to in the preseason and the Red Raiders have been checking them off one by one.
"Goals? We had the area tournament, then regionals. ...," McClain said. "We've go one more to get."
Final Four schedule
involving local teams
Class 5A girls
Hartselle (28-6) vs. Ramsay (31-2), 9 a.m.
Class 5A boys
Decatur (27-5) vs. John Carroll (30-5), 10:30 a.m.
Class 1A girls
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