The Hughes Panthers took advantage of a big third quarter and their defense, which had three interceptions - one returned for a touchdown - to march to a 34-10 road win over the Johns Creek Gladiators on Friday in the first round of the Class AAAAAA state tournament.
The Panthers (8-3), a No. 4 seed out of Region 5, will advance to play next Friday at Northside-Warner Robins, a No. 2 seed from Region 1. The Gladiators, who were the top seed from Region 7, finish their season at 8-3.
Panthers defensive back Aaron Finch opened the scoring for Hughes early in the second quarter when he stepped in front of a Johns Creek pass and returned it 40 yards for the score.
That put the Panthers up 7-3 with 10 minutes left in the first half.
“My coach told me they were running a lot of hitches,” Finch said. “So he said to slow down, back pedal and watch the quarterback and react. And I just reacted. It was second nature.”
After the first half ended with the score knotted at 10, the Panthers closed the game with 24 unanswered points, including a 17-point third quarter that put the game away. With 8:27 left in the third, Panthers quarterback Isaiah Green connected with Tony Jones on a 41-yard pass to give Hughes the lead for good.
The Gladiators’ ensuing possession ended in just two plays when Malik Horton pulled in the Panthers’ third interception and returned it to the Johns Creek 13. Green scored on a 1-yard run three plays later. The Gladiators would punt on their next possession, which led to a nine-play, four-minute Hughes drive that ended with a Fernando Sdelamora 24-yard field goal to put Hughes ahead 27-10 with 1:10 left in the third.
“We came out (in the third quarter) and made some adjustments,” Panthers coach Jonah Griffin said. “Our defense held strong for us all night and they set the tempo for us.”
The Gladiators kept the game competitive through the first half, twice taking an early lead. Jake Friant connected on a 34-yard field goal for the game’s first score with 3:43 left in the first. Then, after Johns Creek’s second thrown interception, which came the next possession after Finch’s pick six, the Gladiators scored their only touchdown with a pick-six of their own. Cole Neuber returned an interception 65 yards to give Johns Creek its final lead, 10-7 with 7:42 remaining in the first half.
The Panthers were led by Green’s 231 passing yards on 16-for-33 passing and Demetrius Whitmore’s 137 rushing yards on 19 carries. Jones finished with 79 receiving yards on four receptions.
Hughes 0 10 17 7 - 34
Johns Creek 3 7 0 0 - 10
J - Jake Friant 34 FG
H - Aaron Finch 40 INT return (Fernando Sdelamora kick)
J - Cole Neuber 65 INT return (Friant kick)
H - Sdelamora 31 FG
H - Tony Jones 41 pass from Isaiah Green (Sdelamora kick)
H - Green 1 run (Sdelamora kick)
H - Sdelamora 24 FG
H - Christian Royalston 1 run (Sdelamora kick)