Carl Cleveland drives to the basket during the first half of the Banks County Leopards' 71-45 win over Washington Feb. 14 in Homer. The first-round win in the Class AA state playoffs sends Banks County to the Sweet 16. The Leopards will host Butler at 6 p.m. on Feb. 20. 

After being upset in the first round of the Class AA state playoffs last season, the Banks County Leopards made sure a second-straight upset wasn't in the cards Feb. 14 in Homer. 

A slow start in the first quarter didn't hamper Banks County (24-4) as the Leopards put together solid second, third and fourth quarters to down Washington 71-45 in the opening round of the Class AA state playoffs. The Leopards will host Butler Feb. 20 in the Sweet 16. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. 

Butler defeated Vidalia in the first round to advance. The Bulldogs are 19-6 entering the contest and have won 10 of their last 11 games. 

"Thought defensively we played well," head coach Mike Cleveland said after the win over Washington. "Kept them to our style of basketball. Take away the turnovers and the second-chance points, I doubt (Washington) scored 15 points in this game."

Washington led 14-12 after the first quarter. The Leopards outscored the Bulldogs 59-31 from the second quarter to the end of the game. 

"I thought we did a good job in the second half of making them do what we wanted them to do," Cleveland said. "I thought we did what we wanted to on offense. 

"Really proud of the guys. Executed the game-plan, perfect. It's always a good win when you can beat a team that's three times faster than you are and three times longer than you are. Give a lot of credit to our guys for the execution, right there. I'm a firm believer that basketball skills beat athletes, and I think tonight was a great example of that."

Down 18-17 early in the second quarter, Pierce Martin stepped up and knocked down a 3-pointer near the midway mark, giving the Leopards the lead that wouldn't be relinquished. 

Banks County added 11 more points before halftime including six from Carl Cleveland and led 31-22 at intermission. 

The Leopards scored 14 third-quarter points. Carl Cleveland scored the first 12 and Gavin Brown hit a layup towards the end of the quarter to give Banks County a 45-37 lead going into the fourth. 

Banks County locked down on defense in the fourth quarter, allowing only eight points. The offense kept scoring, dropping 26 points, the most of any quarter during the game. 

"I thought we did a good job, again, of getting the ball to the basket first, and then when (the defense) tried to take that away, we stepped up a made a couple of 3s right there," coach Cleveland said. "Really proud of how we played. Thought we played smart down the stretch. 

"You know, (Washington) is so athletic, they get you out of your stuff. You've got to rely on your basketball skills, and we work on that a lot. Thought we spaced the floor, didn't allow them to double us. Again, got the ball where it needed to be, made good decisions and good shots."

Coach Cleveland expects the next opponent to be like Washington when it comes to athleticism. 

"Game-plan's, probably, going to stay about the same," he said. "My guys are going to work hard. They're going to give effort ... if we don't make it to the Final Four, and that's a goal of ours, it won't be because of effort. Our guys are going to give the effort and play together and do things the right way."

Cleveland applauded the crowd that showed up in Homer for the first round. 

"I thought that was a big Sixth Man for us tonight," he said. "Packed house in Homer, Ga., is always a good place to be. Just overall a good night for Banks County basketball."

The Sweet 16 is a place the Leopards are familiar with, as they've made it there five of the last six seasons. But the Leopards are looking to move beyond it and not see the season end. 

"I hear a lot of people talk about that. There's 90 percent of the teams in the state that would love to be in our position right now," coach said. "Won 24 games and in the Sweet 16 ... I don't look at it as a negative that we haven't gotten past the Sweet 16, but we want to. But I don't look at it as a negative as some people do. I look at it as more of we got there. We got there with good kids, Banks County kids."


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