BIRMINGHAM – For the past week, basketball has helped members of the Florala High boys' basketball team, as well as members of the community, get through a difficult time.

On Monday, in the AHSAA Class 1A Final Four semifinals, basketball came to a stop, at least for now. The Wildcats' trip to Legacy Arena at the BJCC came to a quick end as they dropped a 47-26 decision to defending Class 1A state champion Covenant Christian in a semifinal game.

The loss was difficult to digest. It pales in comparison, however, for the grief the Florala High community has faced since the school's principal, Max Whittaker, died on February 20. Whittaker was 58 years old when he died.

"We're still in shock," said Florala head coach Troy Turman. "We've been basketball, basketball, practice, school, practice. I'm sure when we get home to Florala, it will all kind of sink in. It will be tough. I think basketball helped the players deal with it."

Whittaker's death came a day before Turman and his team were preparing for the South Regional semifinal game against Choctaw County. 

"We had a team meeting on Sunday, before our practice, and just did the best we could at that point," Turman said. "The Monday game was a very emotional game. We came back and won."

The Wildcats beat Choctaw County, 48-43, and their principal's funeral was the following day. Two days later, Florala beat Brantley, 58-46, to punch a ticket to the Final Four in Birmingham.

Christian Greasham, the lone senior starter for the Wildcats, said the motivation came from Whittaker.

"He told us he was going to retire when we won state," Greasham said.

Sophomore Dalton Jackson recalled the meeting when Whittaker motivated the players.

"Personally, it helped me focus more on basketball because he brought all the players into his office before he passed away," Jackson said. "He said he could have retired, but he wanted to go out with us. It helped motivate us to push through the practices and helped us play our best."

Florala also came into Monday's game facing some critical injuries. Rayshon Coleman, one of the team's leading players, was limited in what he could do because of injuries suffered during the regionals. They also faced a very good Covenant Christian team that improved to 30-3 and still trying to secure its second successive state championship. Covenant Christian's Jalen Chandler (14 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, four blocked shots, three assists) and Trey Kellogg (12 points, five rebounds, four blocked shots) were outstanding.

Greasham had a team-best 10 points while Jackson and Coleman added eight points each for the Wildcats (23-8). No one else scored for Florala.  

"They gave outstanding effort in regional semifinals and finals," said Turman, whose team shot just 25% from the field and missed all 10 3-pointers. "Today, our effort wasn't what we wanted. But, it was just a lot of adversity for these young kids. It was one thing after another, adversity wise. I thought we showed a lot of resilience. This is going to make our guys a lot better. (Reaching this point) will be an experience of a lifetime for them."

Turman managed a small smile when asked what Whittaker would have told the team on Monday.

"He would have had his cell phone on Facebook Live, going through it all and blowing it up on social media, hugging on them and everything," Turman said.

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