Madison County punched its ticket to the state tournament Tuesday, coming from behind to down Chestatee, 59-52, in Jefferson in the first round of the Region 8-AAAA tournament.
The Red Raiders will travel to Flowery Branch at 9 p.m. Thursday to face Cedar Shoals in the region semifinals. Madison County will play again Saturday at Flowery Branch, either at 3 p.m. or the 7 p.m. championship game.
Red Raider senior Nolan Hill got into some foul trouble in the first half, but he made up for time off the court with a dominant second half, scoring 18 of his 21 points in the final two periods and helping his team pull away from the War Eagles, who led much of the game.
“We came out in the region tournament there’s a lot more pressure on you than at other times, and we played like it early on,” said Red Raider head coach Bryan Bird, whose team improved to 11-10, 7-4. “You try to prepare kids for that, but there’s a lot of kids who’ve never been in that situation. So we played pretty tight early on. It can be contagious. Once somebody makes a mistake and you feel the nerves, you kind of wait for somebody to bust through that for everybody.”
Madison County trailed 36-28 midway through the third quarter when Hill scored a bucket and was fouled, knocking down the free throw to cut the lead to five. Mason Smith, who tallied 12 points, also helped the Red Raiders roar back.
“I thought Mason Smith came in and did some good things,” said Byrd. “He really sparked us offensively.”
Corey Chatham finished with 10 points and Omari Rucker had eight. The coach said Jay Carruth handled the ball well for the Raiders and Peyton South did a good job shutting down one of the region’s top shooters.
And Hill was clutch with the game on the line.
“Nolan got in early foul trouble and we struggled early on, but when we got into crunch time, and we needed stops, and plays, he provided that,” said Bird. “He hit a huge three to tie it up. And then he had huge rebounds when we needed them to seal the win. He hit some huge free throws.”
Madison County turned up the heat on defense in the third period, limiting Chestatee to eight points in the period after the War Eagles put up 30 in the opening half.
“We told them this week is going to be about defense,” said Byrd. “I was so proud of the fact that even though we didn’t play our best game and we were fumbling the ball, we just found a way to will ourselves to a win. That’s a great sign of a competitor when it’s not your best night — just finding a way to get the job done.”