Class AAA semifinals from Georgia Southern-Savannah

By Alex Ewalt

SAVANNAH -- Both the Hart County girls and boys teams advanced to the Class AAA title games next week at the Macon Centreplex. The Hart County girls will take on defending champion Johnson-Savannah, and the boys will meet Region 8 rival Morgan County. The girls title game is Thursday, March 8 at 6 p.m., and the boys game will follow at 8 p.m.

Boys

Hart County 71, Dawson County 56

Hart County’s boys followed the girls team into next week’s state finals, defeating Dawson County 71-56 to stay in the hunt for the program’s third championship all-time and first since 1986. 

The Bulldogs jumped out to a 20-6 lead in the first quarter and held a 31-22 lead at half before withstanding a Dawson County rally in the third quarter, with Dawson County drawing to within 38-35 with five minutes to go in the period. The Bulldogs then pulled away and stretched the lead back to double-digits in the second half using physical defensive play. 

“Defense, defense, defense. I thought we played extremely hard and got after it on the defensive end,” Hart County head coach Harry Marsh said. “We shared the ball well. But I can’t say enough about the defensive effort we have. Dawson County came out with that spurt in the third quarter, and we were expecting to get one of those. … We weathered that and just kept fighting.”

Marsh got another sensational game from senior wing Rex McCord, who scored a game-high 28 points to follow a big performance in Hart County’s 67-63 quarterfinals win against Johnson-Savannah. 

“Doesn’t surprise me. He had 33 in the last game, so I’ll have to talk to him and tell him he’s slipping a little bit,” Marsh joked.

“He’s a warrior,” Marsh added. “He comes to play every game, and not only that, he comes to win. He does the things it takes to win. He rebounds, plays defense, scores, he does everything. I can’t say enough about him.”

Marsh once again leads Hart County back to the finals, having taken the Bulldogs to their last state championship in 1986 during a prior 17-year tenure as coach at the program. Marsh is in his first year back at Hart County, with an 18-year stint at Franklin County and a temporary retirement in between. 

Hart County’s Jordan Langston was the game’s second-leading scorer with 19 points, and teammate Shone Webb contributed 12 points. Luke Chism and Jasper Gibson each led Dawson County with 18 points, with 12 points from Ahmad Kamara. 

Hart County will face Region 8 mate Morgan County, which won both regular-season matchups by double-digits, the second one on Jan. 26.

Morgan County 82, Windsor Forest 63

Morgan County downed Windsor Forest 82-63 behind its senior trio of Stevin Greene, Tyrin Lawrence and Alec Woodard, who combined for 62 points for the Bulldogs. Woodard led the group with 23 points, while Lawrence scored 21 and Greene added 18. 

The Bulldogs reach their fifth final in six years, a span in which they have won two titles (2014 and 2016, both in Class AAA). Greene, Lawrence and Woodard led a dynamic Bulldogs team with an array of three-pointers, alley-oops and coast-to-coast drives to the rim.

“Usually it’s two guys out of three that’s really, really special and then another one is chipping in with 15 (points), but when you get all three of those guys clicking on all cylinders, it’s a joy not only to coach, but it’s a joy to watch,” said Morgan County head coach Jamond Sims.

Morgan County led as much as 25 late in the game, pulling away in the second half after a gutsy first-half effort by Windsor Forest kept them within 10 points at the break, 45-35. Windsor Forest came out hot behind the shooting of sophomore Shamar Norman, who scored all of his 14 points in the first quarter. Norman led the Knights in scoring.

“We felt like we allowed them to get into some comfortable spots early on in the first half, and get some easy looks and scores, and that’s kind of what we focused on in the second half,” Sims said. “Their catch-and-shoot guys on the perimeter, we’re going to make them put the ball on the floor and do some things differently.”

Morgan County scored the first six points of the second half and got its first 20-point lead of the game, 59-39, on a Greene-to-Woodard alley-oop with 3:40 to go in the third. The Bulldogs pushed the game out of reach when Morgan County drew a taunting technical foul after Greene was fouled hard on a drive to the basket. Greene sank all four free throws to make it a 67-42 lead with 1:34 remaining in the third.

It’s been somewhat of a redemption tour for Morgan County this season, as last year’s team, the favorite to win the state title with Lawrence, Green and Woodard as juniors, fell short in the semifinals with a shocking 73-71 loss to Greater Atlanta Christian. 

“Everybody remembers the score from last year,” Sims said. “Some guys have it as a screen saver on their cell phones as a constant reminder. But it’s one of those things that even though the fans and the community and individuals around the state expect these guys to make it (to the finals), they embrace the hard work, they embrace the challenge, and they definitely look forward to being able to get there for the program five times in six years.” 

“We had to [redeem] ourselves for last year’s Final Four, and I think that’s what it really came down to,” Woodard agreed. “Even though they made a few stretches, even in the second half, we ended up focusing even more. And once we focused on defense, the offense just kind of fell into place.”

Even though Morgan County has defeated its Region 8 foe Hart County twice before, by scores of 70-53 and 66-55, Sims said that next week’s final is a clean slate.

“We even told the kids that the Hart County that we played early on in our region schedule is a totally different Hart County that we will see,” Sims said. “Just for the mere fact that they’ve got some other guys who have some more experience, they’re clicking on all cylinders, they’ve got a really good coach, Coach Marsh, on the sidelines.”

Girls

Hart County 62, Beach 58

The Hart County girls erased a second-half deficit that ballooned to as many as 12 points to defeat hometown Beach 62-58. 

Hart County relied on a fantastic all-around performance from Western Kentucky signee Torrion Starks. The senior point guard dominated possession in the second half, scoring 26 points on her way to a game-high 34 points for the game. Starks hit 10 straight free throws spanning the late second quarter into the fourth, going 11-of-14 from the line in the fourth quarter and 15-of-21 for the game. 

Hart County head coach Mike Edwards was clear that his team’s strategy was to put the ball in Starks’s hands.

“That’s what she does for us,” Edwards said. “That’s why she is who she is.”

Hart County trailed 44-32 in the third quarter before Starks scored 14 straight points for Hart to tie the game at 46-46 with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. A Shakendra Grove three-pointer at 3:45 gave Hart a 51-48 advantage, and the Lady Bulldogs maintained a slim lead for the rest of the game. 

Jaida Burgess (13 points) of Beach hit a layup and made it a one-point game, 55-54, with a minute and a half left, but fouled out on the ensuing Hart inbounds. Starks’s free-throw shooting and stout defense kept Hart ahead in the final minute, as Starks hit seven foul shots in the final 1:04. 

“On this stage, I was telling my assistants, (Starks) is going to take over,” Edwards said. “That’s who we are. You could kind of see the switch flip, and they kept putting her on the free-throw line and she was knocking the bottom out. She’s a very good game closer. That’s where we want the ball, we want it in her hands.”

“As the game went on in the second half, we were down by 12 and I knew that if we lose, it’s my last time (playing in high school),” Starks said. “So I just knew I had to take over the game.”

Grove was Hart’s second-leading scorer with 15 points, all on three-pointers. Madison Evans led Beach with 22 points.

Hart County makes its first state finals since 1994, the last year of a dominant run in the late 1980s and 90s that saw the program win six straight state titles. The program has won nine titles overall. The Lady Bulldogs will face Johnson-Savannah in next week’s final.

Johnson-Savannah 64, Sonoraville 52

Johnson-Savannah stemmed a mid-game push by Sonoraville to maintain a comfortable lead and move on to its third-straight state title game. The Lady Atom Smashers’ 64-52 win gives them a chance for their second-straight Class AAA championship. 

J’Mya Cutter led a balanced Johnson scoring attack with 17 points. Antalazia Baker and Zoriah Mobley each scored 11 for Johnson, and Jazmine Thompson and Checobia Hugie each contributed nine. 

Johnson jumped out to a 21-8 lead after one quarter before Sonoraville fought back to make it a five-point deficit, 23-18, in the second quarter. Johnson responded, however, to push the lead back to nine points, 31-22, at halftime. The second-quarter lull would be as close as Sonoraville came the rest of the game.

“We got caught with our substitutions and miscommunication on the defensive end, and that’s what happened,” Johnson head coach Brandon Lindsey said of the second quarter. “It takes a team that’s going to respond and stop it.”

A Tiana Williams three-pointer at 2:35 in the third quarter and a Johnson layup with 1:58 left in the period made it a 46-31 Johnson lead, and the Lady Atom Smashers controlled the game from there, with Sonoraville drawing no closer than 10 points. 

Maliyah Parks led Sonoraville with 20 points, Abby Chambers scored 12 and Alexa Geary scored 10.

Lindsey had nothing but praise for Cutter, his senior guard who has been a part of each of the three Johnson finalists since 2017.

“She’s just the consummate ball player,” Lindsey said. “She’s a workhorse for us. She makes us go and that’s no secret. One night if she wants to get 30 (points), she can. If she wants to get 20 and 10, 15 and 15, she can do that.”

“We all were determined to get back to state, clearly, and it showed when we played our behinds off for these past (playoff) games,” Cutter said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Johnson’s run to the final has brought wins of 56, 22 and 16 points before Saturday’s 12-point victory, but Lindsey said the team received a wake-up call when it lost to fellow Savannah semifinalist Beach by 13 points in the Region 3 championship game. 

“It’s my senior year,” Cutter said. “I don’t want to get all the way there and not win. I want to get another ring.”

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