The Banks County Leopards’ bid to make it to the Final Four looked hopeful entering the fourth quarter as the team rallied from a sluggish end to the first half to take a 45-42 lead over Chattooga by the end of the third quarter Wednesday in the Class AA Elite Eight.
However, the Indians, who finished the first half on a 13-2 run, found that same magic early in the fourth quarter and didn’t let it go.
Chattooga (24-6) dropped 25 fourth-quarter points in front of a loud and packed Banks County gym to end the Leopards’ season with a 67-57 loss in the Elite Eight. Banks County finished the season with a 25-5 record and its first Elite Eight appearance since the 1995 season.
“(Chattooga) played well,” head coach Mike Cleveland said after the loss. “So, you’ve got to give them some credit. That’s a good team. Again, if you’re in the Elite Eight, everybody’s good.
“I don’t feel like we played our best game. We didn’t shoot as well as we have been. It’s always hard for that last (game) to happen. As coaches, we spend as much time with these guys as we do our own families, and so we become family. That’s why our motto has been ‘family’ ever since I’ve come here.”
Banks County shot 41 percent from the field in the loss including 7-of-22 from beyond the arc. The Leopards finished with two players in double figures: Carl Cleveland, 18 points, and Pierce Martin finished with 14. Sawyer Pace added nine points.
On the other side, Chattooga made 11 3-pointers in the game. The free-throw line, though, is where it made separation, especially in the fourth quarter. The Indians made 11 free throws in the fourth quarter. They shot 14-of-25 from the charity stripe. Banks County attempted only 11 free throws.
Jatorrian Williams finished with a game-high 22 points to lead the Indians. He made five 3s. Damien Smith scored 17 points including eight in the fourth with two 3s. Malachi Jackson finished with 13 points, six of which all came from the line in the fourth.
The loss ended the high school careers of Cleveland, Pace, Gavin Brown, Tyler Thomas and Mason Marlow.
“It’s hard to talk to those seniors after the game and knowing they don’t have another day on this floor,” coach Cleveland said. “They put so much time and effort into it. We hate we lost tonight. And we’re never going to be satisfied, but I’m proud of this team, proud of every guy on the team.
“It takes a lot of effort to get to this point. I’m also proud that we’re disappointed with this, because when I got here, we were happy just winning a game here and there. So, for our guys to believe that they can be here and advance further than this and are disappointed when they don’t, that makes me happier than anything. Proud of this group of guys, 13 great guys, my coaching staff’s great guys. It has been a great season, maybe the best in school history. I don’t know. I think that’s, at least, up for debate. Really hate it for those five seniors whose high school basketball career has ended tonight. It’s always tough.”
The first quarter belonged to the Leopards. After Chattooga opened the game with a 3-pointer, Banks County got rolling with a turn-around jumper from Cleveland and a layup from Dakota Orr to grab the early lead.
Down 10-9 after another Indians’ trey, Orr got another layup to give the Leopards the lead again and Martin followed with a 3-pointer. Banks County led 14-13 after the first quarter.
The Leopards were outscored 19-9 in the second quarter. Banks County led 21-19 with 2:43 left, but the Indians finished the first half on a 13-2 run to take a 32-23 lead at intermission.
Banks County’s best quarter came in the third. The Leopards outscored the Indians 22-10. Any shot Chattooga made, someone had an answer.
The lead was cut to five quickly after back-to-back buckets from Cleveland and Clay Gosnell. The margin fluctuated between five and eight points until the 3:02 mark when Cleveland hit a free throw. He followed it up with a layup. Then, Garrett Presley tied the game with a layup with 1:43 left in the quarter. Cleveland gave the Leopards the lead when he buried a 3-pointer with 57 seconds left.
Banks County started the fourth quarter with a 45-42 lead, but the lead evaporated quickly. Chattooga tied the game with a 3-pointer with 6:56 left to play and then got the go-ahead bucket with a layup at the 6:29 mark.
The Indians added a free throw and another layup before Banks County finally scored a point, which came on a free throw from Orr with 4:58 left in the game.
The closest the game would get again was one point with 3:25 left when Martin hit two free throws. From there, though, Chattooga’s Smith drained a 3-pointer with 2:21 left and Jamarious Mosteller came up with a steal and layup with 1:57 left to play to push the Leopards’ deficit to 57-51.
The final 10 points from Chattooga came from the free-throw line to put the game away.