Class 4A Semifinal coverage from Fort Valley State

Credit: Seth Ellerbee

Credit: Seth Ellerbee

Baldwin, Hardaway girls, North Oconee, Holy Innocents’ boys advance to the state championship game.

Boys: North Oconee 65, Baldwin 64

It could have been the hostile Baldwin crowd which encouraged North Oconee’s comeback. Or it might have been the naysayers speaking of the Titans’ inability to match up with the Brave’s stout defense which kept the game close.

Or maybe it was North Oconee’s fundamental basketball winning out against Baldwin’s freakishly athletic drive-and-dish style of play. Then again, it might have been a combination of those things which carried the Titans to victory.

But North Oconee ended the game on a 6-0 run punctuated by a put-back game-winner from sophomore Khamari Brooks to continue the team’s run of first-ever quarterfinal, semifinal and now state championship appearances.

“We just stayed home and executed,” said North Oconee head coach Rick Rasmussen. “We got some key stops and really good buckets down the stretch and cashed in on that. We got a turnover and a charge on the press, which was big.”

Leading up to the game, Rasmussen was off put by media outlets saying his team could not handle the environment against Baldwin, a school in Milledgeville, roughly 90 minutes from Fort Valley, compared to a nearly 3-hour trek from Bogart, where North Oconee High is located.

“We’ve stuck together and weathered adversity all year long,” he said. “There were some haters our there. Some people said we wouldn’t be able to handle the environment and we used that as fuel.”

A lay-in from Brooks with 50 seconds left in the game cut the North Oconee deficit to 64-63 and with 16.5 seconds left, North Oconee benefited from a jump ball, setting up the game-winner.

“They didn’t really have an answer for (Brooks) on the offensive glass,” he said. “He’s just a well-rounded player and a great defender.”

Baldwin led 13-11 after the first quarter but an 18-12 North Oconee run gave the Titans a 29-25 lead at halftime. Baldwin regained the lead through a 25-21 run in the third quarter to enter the fourth quarter tied at 50.

Five players did the scoring for North Oconee and Brooks led with 28 points while Justin Wise added 14 points and Justin Payne tallied 10 points. Byrd Carter (8 points) and Evan Montgomery (5 points) capped scoring for the Titans.

Baldwin was paced by 21 points from Isaiah Dennis and 11 points each from Karez Demory and Tre Lawrence.

Boys: Holy Innocents’ 52, Benedictine 45

Junior Caleb Wilson is hard to guard. He’s 6-foot-10 and being recruited by most Division I programs in the nation and in the nightcap game in the 4A semifinals, he finished with 18 points and 21 rebounds to help keep Benedictine at arm’s reach.

“He’s got a wild skill set,” said head coach Mario Mays of his star center. “He shoots the ball well, he blocks well, he passes well. There’s really nothing he can’t do. The rest of the guys did a heck of a job and stayed composed.”

Despite the seven-point margin, Holy Innocents’ held control throughout, leading 22-21 at the half and 35-33 entering the fourth quarter. The Bears expanded the lead to 40-33 with five minutes left in the game and expanded the margin to 12 points, 45-33, with two minutes remaining.

“This is big,” Wilson said. “I feel like as a freshman when we didn’t even make it to state and then last year we lost in the first round and now this year coming up big to make it to the state championship is exciting.”

Will Hopkins scored 12 points and Devin Hutcherson added 10 points for Holy Innocents’.

“We just have to finish the drill,” Wilson said.

Girls: Hardaway 57, North Oconee 44

Bittersweet. That’s what last year’s loss in the same round felt like for Hardaway head coach Kelly Ellison.

Since, the Hawks have only lost four contests and after a 57-44 victory over North Oconee in the semifinals, Ellison and Hardaway have a chance for the program’s first ever state championship.

“It means so much because we were here last year and lost in the Final Four,” Ellison said of the loss to eventual-champion Griffin 59-54. “So to persevere and win to go to the championships means everything.”

Hardaway led 11-5 after the first quarter and 28-21 at the half. The Titans cut the lead to two possessions, 46-40, early in the fourth quarter, but Hardaway maintained control, expanded the margin and put the game away.

“They are a great shooting team and we had to make sure we closed out on their shooters and we made sure we didn’t rush our shots. We looked for mismatches and handled them.”

Mikayla Johnson finished with a team-leading 20 points to pace Hardaway.

“She’s an automatic threat,” Ellison said. “Instant offense. North Oconee did a great job early on trying to limit her and press her but we made some adjustments. My team just does a great job.”

Akilah Shelton added 11 points for Hardaway and Adazha Burrell finished with nine points. North Oconee was paced by Kendall Wells (18 points) and Lolly Willis (15 points).

Girls: Baldwin 55, Fayette County 32

Baldwin has won 24 straight games including a 55-32 victory over Fayette County in the semifinals Saturday to make it to the state championship game for the second consecutive season.

And now, the team will have a chance at the program’s fourth state championship since winning three-consecutive titles from 1986-1988.

Baldwin’s girls felt the sting of defeat in last year’s 4A championship game, losing to Griffin 51-47. But since, the Braves have only lost two games -- in back-to-back contests -- against A Division I No. 1 and defending-champion St. Francis on Nov. 25 and 2022 7A champion Norcross on December 2.

“After last season the girls are ready,” said Baldwin head coach Kizzi Walker. “Earlier in the season we faced some adversity regarding a selfish mentality about ‘Who is going to score the points?’ from the girls, but we moved past that and learned from our losses.”

Baldwin had little issues with the Tigers, leading 14-3 after the first quarter and 30-10 at the half in the romp. The Braves controlled a 43-25 lead entering the fourth quarter.

“After losing last season, I think now is our time,” said Walker, a Georgia Southwestern alum who has coached the boys and girls teams at Baldwin after a stint coaching Sumter County in Americus.

Janaye Walker finished with 12 points to pace Baldwin and Kassidy Neal added 11 points. Fayette County was led by Bri’Ann Freeman, who scored nine points.