Peyton Thomas and Rhett Benford combined to score 40 points for Phil Campbell on Thursday night, and Joe Hardy hit the go-ahead three in the final minute to lift the surging Bobcats to a 61-58 win at county rival Belgreen.
Phil Campbell (5-9) trailed by double-figures early in the second quarter before mounting a comeback. Thomas, who would finish with a game-high 22 points, banked in a half-court shot—while being fouled—to beat the first-half buzzer. He missed the free throw, but the Bobcats took a 32-29 lead into the locker room.
Benford, who scored a season-high 18 points on the night, nailed three threes in the third quarter, but Belgreen (14-4) still managed to out-score the Bobcats 22-21 and cut the lead to two at 53-51.
The game was tied 58-58 with roughly 40 seconds remaining when Hardy, a senior guard, drilled his second three-pointer (Phil Campbell’s season-high 10th of the night) to put the Bobcats in front. The Bulldogs missed a shot on their ensuing possession and were forced to foul. Thomas missed the front end of two one-and-ones down the stretch, but Belgreen was unable to take advantage and suffered its first home loss this season in seven games.
“It was a fun game. That’s a great environment, a fun place to play,” said head coach Brett Thomas, whose Bobcats were one of just two visiting teams to win at Belgreen last season. “Both crowds were into it. It was just an old-school Phil Campbell-Belgreen basketball game.”
The Bulldogs are now 14-3 against county competition since the start of last season—with all three losses coming to the Bobcats. Belgreen won the first meeting between the two teams this season 68-52 at Phil Campbell on December 15 behind 25 points from Mason Bragwell, a 6’6 junior. Bragwell scored 18 of those points in the second half, the majority of which came outside the paint.
“He killed us with those mid-range jumpers,” Brett Thomas said. “We wanted to keep him pushed away from the basket, but that kid can shoot. Usually, with a big guy, if you push him away from the basket you feel like you’ve done a good job—but not with him.”
Bragwell, averaging a county-best 19.9 points per game on the season, did not score in Thursday’s first half and finished the night with just three field goals and 10 points.
“We still focused on him this time, but we made an adjustment,” Thomas said. “We tried to have a guard come down and double him when he was in that mid-range area. We did a better job of not letting him have comfortable looks and wide-open shots.
“He’s not just a great post player; he’s an excellent shooter, too. We learned from our mistakes from the first game and did a better job of contesting his shots.”
Thomas said Phil Campbell’s defense as a whole has improved significantly since Hardy returned to the lineup on January 4 following meniscus surgery.
“Joe’s presence and leadership has made a huge difference for us,” said Thomas, whose team has won four of its last six games after stumbling to an injury-plagued 1-7 start. “We like to rotate defenses from possession to possession sometimes just to mix it up, and having him out there calling out those changes has been huge. With him and Peyton both, it’s like having a coach on the court.”
The Bobcats opened Thursday’s game in their customary two-three zone, but that didn’t last long. Belgreen’s Brant Bragwell, back in the lineup after missing the two previous games due to a sore knee, drilled three threes in the first quarter, helping the Bulldogs jump out to an early 20-13 lead.
“We started out in a two-three, but he shot us out of it,” Thomas said of Bragwell, Belgreen’s leading three-point maker coming into the game with 23. “We switched to a one-three-one. This was really the first time we could play that one-three-one, because Joe is so good at running the baseline. That’s a hard job, and Joe does it to perfection. That allows us to spread out and do a better job covering shooters.”
Bragwell, a junior guard averaging 13.7 points per game on the year, did not score after the first quarter on Thursday and finished with nine points. Senior point guard Jacob Mayberry picked up the slack and led Belgreen with 20 points, but the Bulldogs couldn’t overcome the hot perimeter shooting of Benford (four threes) and Thomas (three threes).
Benford, a senior guard playing with a surgically repaired ACL in one knee and a recently torn ACL in the other, has been a thorn in Belgreen’s side all season, totaling nine threes and 33 points in two meetings.
“It’s taken Rhett a little time with that torn ACL to get used to playing on it,” Brett Thomas said. “He’s had to figure out what he can do and what he can’t do, but he’s an extremely smart kid. He’s got a very high basketball IQ, maybe the highest of any kid I’ve ever coached. He’s figuring out some different ways to make it work.”
Phil Campbell has evidently figured out how to do something almost nobody else has—beat Belgreen at Belgreen. The Bulldogs have lost only three games on their home floor over the past two seasons—one to Covenant Christian and two to the Bobcats, who also won 85-80 at Belgreen in December of 2016.
“It’s been a good spot for us,” Thomas said on Thursday night. “I just hope it continues for the county tournament.”
After visiting Sulligent for an area game next Monday night, the Bobcats will then face Vina in the four-five game on Tuesday at the Franklin County Tournament—hosted by Belgreen. A victory over Vina would earn Phil Campbell another shot at the top-seeded Bulldogs on their home floor in next Thursday’s semifinals.
Belgreen blew out the Bobcats 73-52 in last year’s county championship game, snapping a streak of five straight losses to Phil Campbell.
Both teams struggled to make free throws in Thursday’s meeting. The Bulldogs shot just 5-for-15 from the foul line, and the Bobcats weren’t much better at 5-for-12. By contrast, both teams shot the ball well from beyond the arc, with Phil Campbell making 10 threes and Belgreen connecting on seven.
Peyton Thomas topped the 20-point mark on Thursday for the fourth straight game and is now averaging 23.5 points per game since the calendar flipped to 2018. Hardy finished with 10 points on Thursday, and Nate Owens had four. Brody Nix had three points, and Daniel Smith and Cody Cotham each added two.
Mayberry notched his second 20-point game of the season for Belgreen. Reserve guard Gaven Taylor hit a pair of threes and scored six points, and Seth Taylor added five. Payton Scott finished with four points, and Eli Hiser and Ashlee Britton had two apiece.