Hart County 54, Pace Academy 50

The Hart County Bulldogs had dug themselves an early first quarter hole against the Pace Academy Knights when coach Harry Marsh called timeout. They returned to the court a different team, taking control before holding on tight with clutch 3-point shooting at the end to escape with a 54-50 road win on Saturday in the first round of the Class AAA state playoffs.

The No. 8 Bulldogs (21-7), a No. 3 seed from Region 8, advance to play the winner of Lumpkin County (No. 4, Region 7) at North Murray (No. 1, Region 7). The No. 5 Knights — a No. 2 seed from Region 5 — see their season end at 20-9.

The Bulldogs opened the game with a full-court press that resulted in wide-open 3-pointers for the Knights, with Josh Reed hitting two and Madison Durr hitting another. That helped Pace open the game on an 11-2 run, at which point Marsh called timeout with 4:17 left in the first quarter.

Marsh, who is in his first season back with the Bulldogs after coaching the past 18 years at Franklin County, made an adjustment at that point.

“We knew they’d put (Reed) in the corner against the press and if we didn’t do a good job rotating, he’d get a good look and knock it down and that’s what he did,” Marsh said. “We were a little discombobulated, so we needed to settle down and just play. So we stopped pressing and started playing straight up, half-court man.”

The adjustment worked and the Bulldogs closed the quarter on a 9-1 run to take a 13-12 lead. From there they took control, widening the margin to as many as nine, led by the scoring efforts of Shone Webb, Rex McCord and Elijah Robinson. Though the Bulldogs weren’t pressing, they were forcing the Knights into several turnovers that led to easy transition buckets.

The Bulldogs led 29-20 at halftime.

The Knights would stick around, however, as Durr took over the third quarter with 11 points, including one of three 3-pointers for Pace. Reed hit one, and Josh Mininberg’s 3-poiner with 0:46 left in the third pulled the Knights to within 38-37 in Hart County’s favor.

Durr’s basket to open the fourth quarter put the Knights ahead 39-38. Reed’s free throw gave them a 47-44 with 3:28 left but it was immediately answered by senior guard Tyrese Morrison’s only basket of the game, a 3-pointer to tie it.

“To not have hit a shot all night and to take a 3 in that instance — that showed a lot of guts,” Marsh said.

Less than a minute later, Pace would take its final lead of the game at 49-47 on Justin Johnson’s layup, which followed a loose ball scramble.

On the Bulldogs’ next possession, Webb hit another clutch 3 for Hart County, giving them a 50-49 lead with 1:53 remaining.

“We had to be calm and show no weakness,” Webb said.

The Knights tied the game their next possession on Durr’s free throw with 1:32 remaining. At the other end, the Bulldogs chewed some clock before Robinson was fouled and calmly sunk both free throws to give them a 52-50 lead with 0:37 seconds left.

The Knights had two opportunities to tie the game on their next possession, with Reed missing a layup, followed by George Adams missing a put back. Webb pulled down the rebound and hit 1-of-2 free throws to give the Bulldogs a 53-50 lead with 21.7 seconds.

The Knights’ last chance came off an inbounds pass following a timeout. After the Knights ran down the clock, point guard Reign Watkins forced an off-balance 3 that hit front rim and was rebounded by the Bulldogs with 0.8 seconds, essentially ending the game.

“I thought we were one play away, for the most part, in the fourth quarter,” Knights coach Sharman White said. “It came down to moments. They won the moments and we didn’t.”

White wraps up his first season for the Knights after two seasons as an assistant at Georgia State. Prior to that, he won seven state titles at Miller Grove and was was named the National High School Association’s Coach of the Year in 2016.

“I think we’re in a good place even though it doesn’t look like it after today,” he said. “I think we’ve got the program reset. We only lose one senior, and I think we’ll be better going down the road. We’re young, but we’re energetic and our guys will be eager to come back. I’m excited about the future of Pace.”

The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are seeking their third state title in program history. The last came in 1986, when Marsh led them to an AAA title in his first stint with the team, which lasted 17 seasons.

“We’ll enjoy tonight,” Marsh said. “But my thoughts are about moving forward. We’ll come back down to earth, get a scouting report, and formulate a game plan and be ready to play whoever it is we play next.”

Durr led all scorers with 22 points and Reed had 11 for the Knights. The Bulldogs were led by Webb (17 points), McCord (13) and Robinson (12).

Etc.: Former Knights standout Wendell Carter, who led the program to their only state titles in '16 (AA) and '17 (AAA), was in attendance. He's currently a rookie for the Chicago Bulls, who selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft following his lone season at Duke. The 6-foot-10, 275-pound Carter was able to attend because it's the NBA's All-Star break. He was wearing a cast on his left hand because of a thumb injury that is expected to keep him out the remainder of the season.