The Class AAA quarterfinal matchup between No. 1 ranked Westside-Macon at No. 2 Pace Academy lived up to its billing, with the teams trading leads often and going to two overtimes before Pace Academy snuck away from their home court with a 53-50, double-overtime victory on Wednesday night in Atlanta.
Wendell Carter, the 6-foot-10 power forward regarded as one of the best players in the country, scored the Knights' final three points from the free throw line to clinch the win. He finished with a team-high 17 points to guide Pace to the semifinals for a second year in a row.
The Knights (24-8; No. 1 seed, Region 5) are seeking back-to-back state championships -- Pace won the Class AA title last season -- and will play Liberty County on Saturday at Armstrong State University in Savannah. Tipoff is 4 p.m.
"I never felt like we were going to lose," said Carter, a Duke commit. "I don't care if we're down by 20 with one minute left, I believe we can always come back."
Carter's play was equaled on the other end by Westside's Khavon Moore, a 6-foot-8 small forward considered one of the top juniors in the country. He finished with a team-high 17 points and hit a deep 3-pointer with 48 seconds remaining in the first overtime to tie the game at 42 and send it to a second overtime.
In the second overtime, Pace quickly jumped to a 46-42 lead but gave it right back after Moore again tied the game with a 15-footer while falling down. On the Knights' next possession, Carter threw down a two-handed jam with 2:09 remaining, but Westside's Samone Reed quickly responded with a go-ahead 3 with 1:54 remaining, giving the Seminoles a 49-48 lead.
Isaiah Kelly's basket with 1:03 left gave Pace a 50-49 lead, then Moore tied the game at the free throw line with 48.1 seconds left. With 18.5 seconds remaining, Carter hit the first of two free throws to give the Knights a 51-50 lead, then missed his second attempt but Kelly pulled down the offensive rebound. The ball made its way back to Carter, who was double-teamed on the sideline and appeared to split the defenders on a break for the basket. But a Seminoles defender grabbed the ball before he dribbled and a jump ball was called with 10.9 seconds remaining.
The possession arrow pointed to Westside and Carter became enraged, tearing up and staring down the official with his fists clenched. He had to be restrained and was on the verge of being called for a technical before he calmed down.
"I've just got to thank my coaching staff for talking to me and keeping my head on straight," said Carter, who picked up his fourth foul with two minutes remaining in the third quarter. "My head wasn't in the game at that time, so I thank my coaching staff and my teammates."
Westside took the ball off the inbound and got it across half court, then dished it off to Trey Foster, the team's second-leading scorer during the season. He drove the lane for a contested layup and missed. Carter pulled down the rebound and was fouled with 1 second remaining, then went to the line to sink the game's final two points.
Westside coach Josh Grube believes there was contact to Foster on the Seminoles' final possession.
"I thought my guy got fouled at the end and they didn't make the call," Grube said. "And that was the ball game."
Grube also didn't like that the Seminoles (25-4, No. 1 seed, Region 4) had to play at Pace despite earning a top seed. Per GHSA rules, home court advantage is decided by a coin flip when two No. 1 seeds meet in the quarterfinal round.
"We still feel like we're the best team," Grube said. "I don't like the way two No. 1 seeds have to play at one of their sites. I'm not sitting here making excuses, but their crowd was a big-time advantage to them and that's not fair to our kids. This game should have been played at a neutral site."
Now it's the Knights who will have to play the role of road warriors, traveling 261 miles to Savannah to play against a Liberty County team that's located just 30 miles from Atlantic State.
"We've traveled all year so we're used to it," Knights coach Demetrius Smith said. "It's good to get away from home...We'll get out on the road on Friday, get there, relax, eat, hang out and enjoy each other."
Etc: Carter threw down a windmill jam (pictured) on a first quarter breakaway. It was a dunk so spectacular it would have scored high in an NBA dunk contest...Carter is the Class of 2017's No. 3 overall player in the country according to ESPN; Moore is the Class of 2018's No. 8 overall player...Georgia Tech men's basketball coach Josh Pastner was in attendance along with local sports radio personality Steak Shapiro...Kelly finished with 16 points for the Knights and was the game's only other double-digit scorer aside from Carter and Moore.