Riverwood boys win first title; Marist girls win second in 3 years

The Riverwood basketball team storms the court after beating Alexander 67-63 in OT in the Class 6A championship game, March 8, 2024, at the Macon Coliseum.

Credit: Stan Awtrey

Credit: Stan Awtrey

The Riverwood basketball team storms the court after beating Alexander 67-63 in OT in the Class 6A championship game, March 8, 2024, at the Macon Coliseum.

The Riverwood boys basketball team won the first state title in school history and the Marist girls won their second in three years at the Class 6A championships last week at the Macon Coliseum.

Riverwood, which had never advanced past the quarterfinals, earned the title with a 67-63 overtime victory over defending champion and top-ranked Alexander, ending the Cougars’ bid to become the first team to win back-to-back Class 6A titles since Hughes in 2017 and 2018.

The Raiders fell behind 12-1 in the first quarter but pulled back even early in the second half, and the game was tight the rest of the way. JR Leonard led Riverwood with 31 points and was 19-of-23 from the free-throw line. His free throw with 10.5 seconds remaining in overtime essentially iced the victory.

“He’s been telling us all week that we were going to win,” Riverwood coach Buck Jenkins told the AJC’s Stan Awtrey after the game. “He’s one of those positive-affirmation kids and he believed. It’s hard not to believe in a kid when he believes in himself that much.”

Karris Bilal, a Vanderbilt signee, had 17 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. Region 5 player of the year Braedan Lue led Alexander with 26 points and 12 rebounds.

The road to the championship likely was more difficult than it needed to be for Riverwood. The Raiders (25-7) spent most of the season in the top 10 and finished the regular season tied with St. Pius for first place in Region 4-6A, setting them up in a prime spot in the region tournament to earn a favorable seed in the state playoffs. Instead, the Raiders were upset by Marist and North Atlanta, dropping them out of the rankings and knocking them down to a No. 4 seed for state. That meant Riverwood would be away from home for every round of the playoffs.

However, the Raiders were up for the challenge, starting with an 87-84 victory in the first round at then-No. 3 Lee County, the Region 1 champion and 2023 state runner-up. They followed that up with wins at Evans and Woodstock before knocking off Jonesboro in the semifinals at West Georgia.

“We’ve been through a lot of adversity this year and we fought back,” Jenkins said. “The kids believed in each other. That’s what high school sports is all about.”

Marist rode the hot hand of sophomore standout Kate Harpring to a 67-48 victory over previously unbeaten and No. 2-ranked North Forsyth in the girls final. Marist is in its second season in Class 6A, moving up after winning the Class 4A title in 2022.

The War Eagles (30-1) were tied 16-16 at the end of the first quarter, but a layup by Hannah Faklaris in the first 15 seconds of the second gave Marist an 18-16 lead, and North Forsyth was never able to pull even again. The lead was nine points by halftime and continued to grow in the second half.

Harpring was 10-of-14 from the field and 7-of-10 at the free-throw line, finishing with 27 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and five steals, leading her team in each of those categories.

In the semifinals, Harpring tied a career high with 45 points in a 72-69 overtime victory against River Ridge, the defending champion and top-ranked team.

“She’s incredible,” Marist coach Hixon said. “She’s awesome at what she does. Fouling out, playing with fouls, she just sets the mood with her maturity. It was awesome.”

Harpring got help offensively in the championship game from Faklaris, who finished with 16 points, and Abby Lindsay, who had 13.

Marist won its first three playoff games, against Houston County, Lakeside-Evans and Pope, by an average of 36.7. The War Eagles’ only loss this season came against Class 2A champion Mount Paran Christian, 38-31 on Dec. 21.

There will be a new girls champion next year in the state’s second-highest classification – which will be Class 5A after the GHSA’s decision to eliminate Class 7A – as Marist will be move down to Class 4A for the next two school years. The War Eagles will play in a 10-team region along with six DeKalb County public schools, two Fulton County public schools and rival St. Pius.