Baldwin and Sandy Creek came mighty close to making sure two new teams played in the GHSA Class AAAA championship game, and sending St. Pius X and Upson-Lee home with surprising defeats.
But there will be a rerun at McCamish Pavilion of the state title game, won last year 53-48 by Upson-Lee. St. Pius X and Upson-Lee survived - very much so - and advanced and will do it again on March 10 at McCamish.
Less than 20 miles separate the two girls finalists, Spalding from Griffin and Henry County from McDonough. The 2 p.m. state championship on March 10 features two teams not far from each other but who didn’t play this season.
In a Christmas tournament last year, Henry County took a 69-67 win.
Upson-Lee 52, Sandy Creek 51: From the start, Sandy Creek put the fear of defeat into Upson-Lee, and very much so.
“We thought we were the better team,” Sandy Creek head coach Jon-Michael Nickerson said. “That’s what I thought on film. From top to bottom, I thought our depth was better, I thought we had better skill, I thought we shared the ball, were more unselfish.”
But, as it turned out, one difference made the difference.
“They’re tougher than us.”
Upson-Lee survived an off-balance 8-footer inside the final second and held on, in every sense of the phrase, for their 62nd win and chance to take a second straight state title.
The Patriots trailed 11 seconds into the game, and then took the lead and held it, turning away Knights rally after Knights rally.
Then Zyrice Scott got a steal and layup to end the third quarter and get the first lead for the Knights since the opening seconds.
The fourth quarter was a flurry. It was tied at 51 with 2:37 left. Then Tye Fagan (23 points) made one of two at the line with 30.3 seconds left for a 52-51 lead. The Patriots’ Jarred Godfrey (22 points) drove into a body, didn’t get a call, and missed. Upson-Lee’s Cameron Traylor then missed a free throw with 8.8 seconds left.
TJ Bickerstaff eventually got the ball, drove down the right side of the lane, bounced off of 6-6, 250-pound Travon Walker, and put up an off-balance shot that was closer than fairly close but off to the left and fell to the ground.
Fagan went over the 2,000-point mark for his career in the game.
JaCorey Smith added 14 points and Walker 11 for the Knights, Walker getting 13 rebounds and four blocks.
Bickerstaff had 11 for the Patriots.
The Patriots led 18-15 after one, but constantly stopped Knights’ spurts. Upson-Lee tied it at 20, in the second quarter, and that lasted two possessions. Quickly the lead was 27-20 for Sandy Creek, and the Patriots led 37-30 at halftime.
It was time, Upson-Lee head coach Darrell Lockhart thought, for the Knights to be as hungry as the Patriots.
“That’s the way we felt, as coaches,” he said. “Quick words. ‘Do you want to go home? Do you want this to be over? Because this is the way you’re playing.’ (The Patriots) were getting loose balls, they were getting easy shots.
“The second half, the true U-L came out, on the defensive end, which is where the ballgame was won.”
The Knights made slow progress until Scott’s steal and layup, and then they spent the fourth quarter holding on for dear life.
“The difference is, when you’ve won so many games, those dudes know they can win any game (in) any environment,” Nickerson said. “That is an extremely valuable thing.”
St. Pius X 66, Baldwin 61: One minute, the team that trailed 13-1 early had a one-point lead in the fourth quarter.
A mere 21 seconds later, that team trailed by four, and that was it.
A 3-pointer, turnover and putback ended up propelling St. Pius X past a quality Baldwin team that gave the defending state runners-up plenty after digging that early hole.
Baldwin head coach Buck Harris took the blame for the loss.
“I just told the kids I lost the game with a really bad coaching move,” Harris said. “When I decided to go to a zone (and) I left a shooter open, and he jumped up and made one. I thought that was the turning point of the game.”
Brenden Robertson’s layup tied the game with 3:10 left, and he added a free throw about 4o seconds later for a 58-57 Baldwin lead.
Then Everett Lane nailed a 3-pointer, Baldwin gave it back on a bad inbounds, and Troy Stephens scored on a putback.
The Braves trailed 62-58 with 2:08 left
“We have guys, the moment’s not too big for them,” St. Pius (29-3) head coach Aaron Parr said. “They’re just clutch kids, and the responded to Baldwin giving us everything we wanted and more.”
Baldwin, after a poor shot decision, got to within 62-60 with 59 seconds left, then watched St. Pius work the clock down to 22.6 seconds before fouling.
Niko Broadway hit both, Baldwin’s Kevin Hill was whistled for a charge, and Patrick Snipes sealed it with two more freebies with 19.1 seconds left.
“I really thought that Baldwin’s ability … they were down 13-1 and came back to take the lead, I thought that was a lot of mental toughness and resiliency,” Parr said. “I thought our guys really showed a lot of resiliency, too, when (Donte Justice) hit a big 3 and we came down and hit a 3.”
Harris knew that the young Braves would be nervous, and a 13-1 deficit showed it, but they were within 16-8 after one and 33-30 at halftime after leading twice in the final three minutes of the second quarter.
A 3 from Torez Hicks of Baldwin (24-7) tied it at the 1:32 mark of the third quarter, and it was 42 all entering the fourth.
The Braves suffered from some inbounding problems in the physical and fast game, and gave up five points off turnovers in the fourth quarter.
“Just inexperience,” said Harris, noting he took over a three-win team three years ago. “Inexperience in a high-level game.”
Lane , of the last year’s runner-up, led all scorers with 27 points, 21 on 3s, while Stephens added 11. Robertston’s 16 paced Baldwin, with Justice adding 12 and Rodney Walker 11.
Henry County 51, Americus-Sumter 38: Americus-Sumter spent the whole game trying to get the lead, and finally was within a bucket, closer than the Panthers had been since early in the third quarter, midway through the fourth quarter.
And that was it. Henry County scored on its next three possessions and proceeded to pull away for a 51-38 win in the first game of the day at Fort Valley State.
The 28-2 Warhawks will play either Carver-Columbus or Spalding on March 10 at 2 p.m. at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion. Americus-Sumter ended the season at 24-8.
Henry County led the entire game, but could never shake the Panthers, who countered every Henry County run.
Henry County led 19-18 at halftime, Americus-Sumter closing the quarter on a 6-0 run in the final 1:20, the Warhawks going scoreless for the last 4:13.
The Warhawks went up by six in the third and led by four entering the fourth. Two free throws from JyKiera Long pulled Americus-Sumter within 35-33 at the 4:37 mark of the final quarter, but Henry County got some breathing room with a 6-0 run, four from Amaiya Jackson, while the Panthers came up empty three times in a row.
Trips to the free-throw line made a two-possession game a double-digit margin. Jackson led Henry County with 17 points while Brooke Moore added 11. Long topped Americus-Sumter with 13 points.
Spalding 58, Carver-Columbus 51: Put one team with three losses against a team with one, and a slew of ties and lead changes is what you get.
Finally, Spalding changed that.
Carver-Columbus cut a seven-point deficit to two with 1:59 left in the game and trailed by three, but the Jaguars were solid at the line and the Tigers couldn’t get any closer.
Carver’s season ended at 28-2, while Spalding advances with a 27-3 record.
The Tigers came in on a 14-game winning streak, the Jaguars 15, neither having lost in 2018. And they played like it, going back and forth, although Spalding held the upper hand more often than not, although Carver-Columbus led 26-24 at halftime.
The Jags marched ahead and took an 11-point lead with less than two minutes left in the third. Naturally, the Tigers crept back to lead 39-38 on Kionna Gaines’ transition layup early in the fourth.
Carver led by one a few more times before Kiana Banks drove for a bucket and a 44-43 lead that grew to seven points.
Aniaya Jester, a quick ball-handling whiz and sparkplug who made plays all night, led Spalding with 15 points while Banks added 13.
Mariah Igus had 13 for Carver, and Janya Love-Hill 11.