Class AA hoops champs: Pace Academy, Holy Innocents'

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(Note: For the purposes of this blog, we're going to brush aside the GHSA's disastrous blunder, the GHSA's non-reaction to the blunder once it was discovered, and the GHSA's tone-deaf official response to the blunder because the AJC, other local media outlets and national media outlets have this fiasco plenty covered. I'll just leave it alone with this observation: Any time you see "GHSA" and "Executive Director Gary Phillips" on Deadspin, you know the blunder must have been of epic proportions, and it most definitely was.)

Congratulations to the Pace Academy Knights and the Holy Innocents' Lady Golden Bears - you are the 2015-16 Class AA state champs. And on a lesser note, a self-congratulations to me for correctly picking the championship game matchup and winner in both the boys and girls playoff brackets.

We'll start with the Knights. How sweet it must be for Mick Assaf, Gunnor Faulk, Jordan Harris, Deon Jackson, Kyle Orr and Mark Sommerville, all of whom were also members of the Knights' AA championship football team. The Pace student body and community must be overwhelmed with excitement, seeing as how the Knights have now taken home both their first-ever football and boys hoops titles in the span of three months.

The basketball team suffered through a 2-8 start to the season in which they played some of both the state's and nation's best, all while short-handed. But the Knights were finally at full strength in mid-January after healing from injury and gaining players from the football team, and they closed the season on a 18-2 run.

Led by class of 2017 blue-chip recruit Wendell Carter, and complimented by forwards Isaiah Kelly and Zach Kaminsky, the Knights were hardly challenged in the AA tournament. All of their playoff victories were of the double-digit variety, including a 78-48 thumping of then-No. 1-ranked Thomasville in the quarterfinals. From there, the Knights enjoyed 10- and 22-point victories over Crawford County and Manchester, respectfully, in the final two rounds to seal their championship season.

The Knights move up to Class AAA next season and into a Region 5 that includes Cedar Grove - which ended the season ranked No. 6 in AAA - and Lovett (No. 5, AA). Despite moving up a classification they should still enter next season as one of the favorites to win the title, as they return Carter, Kelly and other key contributors including Jackson and Barrett Baker - their two starting guards.

Now, on to the Lady Golden Bears. While the boys' title game was a snooze fest, the girls' title game was anything but.

Holy Innocents' finally toppled its arch nemesis, the Wesleyan Lady Wolves, in the game that mattered most. However, it did take overtime for the Lady Golden Bears to win their first title since 1999, although it shouldn't have come to that.

With 0.6 seconds remaining and the score knotted at 59, Shai Blanding was fouled while attempting a 3-pointer, which sent her to the line with three opportunities to end the game in regulation. However, Blanding missed all three free throws and the game went to overtime.

At that point, it appeared that, yes, the Lady Wolves clearly have a psychological edge over Holy Innocents'. The Lady Wolves beat Holy Innocents' in last year's state title game - despite the Lady Golden Bears going 3-0 against Wesleyan during the season - and there's simply no stopping them from winning a state-record 12th girls hoops title, at least in the minds of the Lady Golden Bears.

With Holy Innocents' squandering a second-half, double-digit lead and somehow finding themselves in overtime, surely the big, bad Lady Wolves had all the momentum they needed to huff and puff their way past the Lady Golden Bears for yet another state title. For most of the overtime period, the Lady Golden Bears looked defeated. Nothing about their body language suggested they had what it took to grind out a victory. They fell behind four points and appeared on their way to a heart-breaking defeat.

Then, the Lady Golden Bears found new life. They closed the final two minutes on a 7-1 run, with Blanding redeeming herself at the line by sinking a crucial free throw in the waning moments. Khayla Pointer's dominating, game-high 33-point performance was validated. Holy Innocents' pulled out the victory, and coach Tony Watkins finally had his first title in the final season of his eight-year coaching career with the Lady Golden Bears.

All's well that ends well for the school that resides on Mount Vernon Highway.

Next season, the Lady Golden Bears return all but three seniors - including N.C. State commit and starting center Erika Cassell - and will drop down to the Class A-private division along with Wesleyan in a loaded Region 5 that will also include powerhouses Greenforest Christian, Southwest Atlanta Christian, Eagle's Landing Christian and Our Lady of Mercy.

Even though the 2015-16 hoops season will notoriously be remembered as the season the GHSA accidentally violated National Federation of State High School Associations guidelines, the Knights and Lady Golden Bears communities will remember it as the season they were crowned state champions.