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Darius Goodman / Tallapoosa Publishers Jazion Reed blocks a shot early in the game against Sipsey Valley Thursday. The Panthers fell 54-40.

When Sipsey Valley jumped ahead seven points in the first two minutes of play, the game was going to be a long shot for the Elmore County Panthers.

As the final basketball game of the season played out in front of fans at Elmore County High School one thing began to become obvious: there’s a bright future at Elmore County and this was just a taste despite the 54-40 loss.

It’s just the third or fourth time the Panthers had been to the state tournament and, for the area title, their first in five years. Coach Rodney Taylor said the pressure of the game wasn’t a distraction.

“I think it’s a positive. One thing we wanted this year, I felt like we were going to win the area,” Taylor said. “I told them that before the season started. I really believed that. To go through and win it and be such a young team, it’s a building block.”

The game was on the ropes from the beginning, Sipsey Valley pulled ahead 7-0 before Rodney Taylor called a timeout. After the timeout, Payton Stephenson drained a three-pointer of his own to put his squad on the board.

“That’s a good basketball team and physically – it’s hard to match up with their bodies,” Taylor said. “They came out and rushed us.”

Fast break speed was another issue the Panthers faced but it was also their first time in a long time that they’d made it to the sub-regional games. The lead that Sipsey accrued was enough to continue their overall momentum in the first quarter.

When the first buzzer rang to end the opening quarter of play, the Panthers were facing an 18-5 deficit.

“They rushed us 18-5, it would’ve been real easy to fold up but we didn’t,” Taylor said. “We came right back and cut it to seven and kinda went back and forth on points.”

The offense struggled but Taylor made some critical adjustments in the huddle that woke his program up.

Shots came out much better and the defense was able to adjust and limit their foes overall makes at times to bring the game back to a manageable score. The Panthers managed to bring the game back to a manageable single-digit deficit.

The gap was just seven points before four minutes came off the board in the second quarter. Elmore County was down 22-15 but over four minutes, the Panthers soon found their deficit back at 10-points.

Halftime’s buzzer brought relief for the fans who wanted to see their home team continue their season, but Sipsey Valley had other plans.

Sipsey opened the game up by going on a 13-point run. Elmore County managed to score a few points in the third quarter, but the damage had been done. The Bears were as far ahead as 21 points in the early part of the third quarter but the Panthers fought back to a 48-33 deficit.

“They jumped us early in the third but we fought back,” Taylor said. “We battled the whole game. We were hustling ‘til the end.”

Elmore County managed just seven points but the desire on the floor to get one more shot up as the game dwindled down continued to hang in the air for the Panthers.

“We have nothing to hang our heads about, we lost to a very good basketball team,” Taylor said. “We will be back.”

The season ended with the Panthers as area champions in their first season as a 5A program.

“Elmore County had never been 5A before,” Taylor said with a chuckle. “Here we are in 5A in basketball and we win the area. And scoreboards can lie. You can win a game by 30 and never get better. When you walked on the floor your physical talent is just better and I’ve been disappointed by that. And then you have games like this. Yea, we lost by 14 but we got better. We played hard and we played well.

“The scoreboard says we had a loss but what we did as a program is continue to grow it and continue to push it forward,” he continued. “That’s all you can be proud of.”

Elmore County, along with other schools around Alabama, had to face additional adversity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Taylor was emotional when thinking about how much his team had to overcome to even be one of the final 32 teams in Class 5A still playing in the postseason.

“I told them, the last thing that I told them…” Taylor paused to fight back tears and a sniffle. “At their age to have to go through that and do what I took to be on this floor tonight. It’s probably the most amazing thing about this story. I was their age at one time. I wanted to run with my friends and hang out and do all the things – they couldn’t do all that. Whether from regulations or restrictions or them choosing themselves to not do things. For all of us in the state, to have the opportunity to still be standing tonight. For what this season has been… It’s a credit to these kids. That’s what I’m proud of. We were here tonight. We didn’t lose our season and they got to play it and made the best of it.”

The preparation for next season will begin in a week for the players who aren’t in other sports around Elmore County. Taylor says that his program will be back in the weight room and so will his girls team.