Heartbreak in the Sweet 16 has been something the Banks County Leopards have had to deal with in the last six seasons.
After dominating for three quarters vs. Butler Thursday night, heartbreak came knocking and got the door ajar inside the Banks County gym, as the Leopards watched a 13-point fourth-quarter lead fizzle down to one on two separate occasions.
But, the Leopards slammed the door on the heartbreak when they needed to, with key free throws and defensive stops down the stretch, to advance to the Class AA Elite Eight with a thrilling 61-58 win in front of a loud and proud Homer crowd.
This is the first time the Leopards (25-4) have advanced to the Elite Eight under head coach Mike Cleveland. The Leopards will be at home for the Elite Eight and will take on either Chattooga or Thomasville.
“Been waiting on this for a while haven’t we,” Cleveland said after the win. “I couldn’t be more proud of my kids. Our guys have worked extremely hard this year, and we’ve battled through some things. To win the regular season, the region championship, to win that first (playoff game) at home, and to (now) beat a team like Butler, that’s a very good basketball team.”
Cleveland added that he's happy with the “resilience” his team showed down the stretch after Butler (19-7) cut the lead to one point.
“Couldn’t be more proud of those 13 boys that have really just sold out to what we ask them to do,” Cleveland said. “Man, I’m so excited for those guys.”
At halftime, Cleveland said he told his group Butler wasn’t going to go away.
“I said, ‘They’re coming, guys, and we have to match that intensity,’” he said. “… they made a heck of a run. They hit some tough shots against the zone. We had closed out pretty well on a couple of those 3s and they buried ‘em. And a couple of those guys who buried ‘em, hadn’t seen that in the scouting reports and film I watched.
“Good job by them. Again, that’s a very good team, very well-coached team. I was really impressed with those guys.”
Carl Cleveland finished the game with 26 points and 12 rebounds. Clay Gosnell had 15 points and Pierce Martin had nine points.
The final minute of the game featured near misses, critical rebounds, a steal and clutch free throws.
Butler hit a layup with 1:25 left to cut the Leopards’ lead to 59-58. At the other end, Banks County missed, giving Butler a chance to take the lead; however, the attempt didn’t go and Dakota Orr came up with the defensive rebound. He gave the ball up to Carl Cleveland who was fouled quickly.
Carl went 1-of-2 on his free-throw attempts, leaving the door open for Butler to tie or take the lead. With the Bulldogs trying to make a play, Garrett Presley came up with a steal and pass to Pierce Martin who was fouled with 5.3 seconds left.
Like Carl, Martin went 1-of-2 at the line, missing the second attempt, but Gosnell got tall, grabbing the miss and dishing it back to Martin who was quickly fouled again with 1.1 seconds left.
Martin went 1-of-2 his second go-round at the charity stripe, giving Butler .8 seconds left to attempt a game-tying 3-pointer after a time-out. But the Leopard defense played strong and kept the Bulldogs from getting an attempt off before the clock expired. Players and students rushed to the court to celebrate the close win.
“We defended well, we rebounded well, got to the free-throw line, made some,” coach Cleveland said. “We got Clay Gosnell getting the rebound over a 6-7 guy at the foul line. That’s huge. Clay Gosnell played really well today. Guy is small in stature, but he’s got the heart of a lion. I compare his drive to Zez (Steeple). You can’t measure who he is as a basketball player by his physical size, because that guy's got a big heart.”
Cleveland said everybody contributed in the win. He added Butler is the best team the Leopards have defeated in a couple of seasons.
The coach also complimented the Banks County crowd for its involvement in giving the Leopards a boost throughout the game.
“Our crowd is second to none,” Cleveland said. “We’ve got the best crowd in Georgia, hands down. If you haven’t been to a game in Banks County, you ought to. It’s a special place.”
The game was tied only twice, at opening tip-off and at 2-2. The Leopards took over, going on a 16-0 run from the 2-2 tie in the first quarter. They led 24-8 after the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Banks County continued to pour in buckets, building the lead to as many as 24 on two occasions – a Martin put back and on Gavin Brown free throws. Butler, however, ended the first half with a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut the deficit to 39-23.
In the third quarter, Banks County held strong, not allowing Butler to get within single digits of the lead. The Leopards hit five shots from inside the paint, which carried them to a 54-41 lead entering the final frame.
Banks County led 56-45 when Butler drained a 3-pointer with 5:51 to cut the lead to eight. After a free throw, Butler hit another three, and the lead was only six points with 5:27 left.
The Bulldogs got the deficit down to 57-56 with 2:44 left. The Leopards finally got back in rhythm on the offensive end as Martin dished to Presley under the basket and Presley connected for a layup to put Banks County back ahead by three points, 59-56.
Butler’s final two points came with 1:25 left. Then, the final sequence of plays Banks County made sealed the win.
“At this point, (like) tonight, you’re going to play somebody good,” coach Cleveland said about the Elite Eight. “A lot of times – and this sounds real simple – it comes down to getting stops and making shots sometimes. For us, because teams are a lot faster than us, we’ve got to take care of the ball. We’re going to work on those three things this week, taking care of it, making shots and getting stops and rebounding.
“I think our style’s a little odd for (teams) at this point. I’d say we’re the last team like us … just a half-court, slow-down-kind of team.”