by Raynard Churchwell
As this year’s high school basketball season is winding down, only four teams remain in the GSHA 5A playoff bracket. The Fayette County Tigers secured their spot as they survived a tough battle against Kell, winning 77-73 on the Longhorns’ home court. The Tigers are now headed to Columbus State University for the semifinals, aiming to win two more games and bring home a state championship.
“It feels good. We said we had a chance to get to the final four at the beginning of the season, and these guys believed in each other,” said Fayette County coach Andre Flynn. “I’m so proud of this team. We had some of our leaders go out and we had to hold up as a team. I told them we had to stay in the moment.”
You could feel the playoff atmosphere as soon as you walked into the building. Both teams brought huge fan bases that were very loud and exuberant, and trash talk between the players was on full display.
The game was a tough battle from the very beginning with the intensity high on both ends of the court. Fayette County’s Ricky Knight Jr. knocked down the first points of the game with a nice 3-pointer, and the Tigers played good defense by forcing Kell to turn the ball over on its first two possessions.
Kell responded with some easy lay-ups and went to a trap defense. Josh Dupree broke the trap and threw down a strong dunk to get the crowd roaring and tie the score at 8-8 halfway through the quarter. Terrell Bradley and Knight also hit key shots to give the Tigers the lead. JeKobe Coleman hit a big 3-pointer with a few seconds left in the quarter as the Tigers led the game 18-13 at the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, the back-and-fourth battle continued. Kell guard Scoota Henderson started the quarter by hitting a crisp jump shot, but Fayette’s Kingston Calhoun got to the free throw line on the next possession, hushing the Kell student section while knocking down both shots.
The teams traded lay-ups and jump shots throughout the quarter, as Henderson began to heat up, and he knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers. Fayette County responded by cranking up their defensive pressure, preventing the Longhorns from getting off any easy shots, as they held a 35-28 lead at halftime.
In the second half, you could feel the intensity of the game reach another level. Knight again began the quarter hitting from deep. Kell’s Isiah Dubose responded by hitting a tough 1-on-1 lay-up, and the Longhorns began to close the gap as Justin Perry sank a 3-pointer. CJ Henderson scored a timely lay-up to trim Fayette’s lead to just two points with four minutes left in the quarter.
Fayette then began to come alive offensively. Bradley hit a much needed 3-pointer to quiet the crowd, and the Tigers got a turnover which led to a fancy alley-oop lay-up by Coleman. The Tigers were able to stretch their lead as the quarter ended, leading the game 56-48.
In the final frame, both fan bases got louder, and you could feel your heart racing as everyone knew someone’s season was about to end. Coleman made the crowd erupt as he hit a nasty crossover and finished it with a 3-pointer. Scoota Henderson got fouled on the next possession and hit one of two free throw shots. Fayette’s Will Richard and Knight hit pivotal shots at the beginning of the quarter.
As the clock wound down, things started to get crazy. With two minutes remaining in the game, the Tigers held a six-point lead, but they turned the ball over on their next possession, leading to Kell’s CJ Henderson getting fouled and hitting both free shots. With those free throws, Kell trimmed Fayette’s lead to four points.
Bradley got fouled and hit one of two free throws, then Scoota Henderson hit a clutch lay-up and got fouled, finishing the three-point play with 40 seconds left to play.
Fayette tried to run down the clock but ended up turning the ball over again. Fortunately, they got the ball back, and Kingston Calhoun got fouled and hit both clutch free throws to give the Tigers a four-point lead with 16 seconds left. Kell scored an easy lay-up on the next possession, trimming Fayette’s lead to two points with 9 seconds left.
Having no choice, Kell had to foul to have a chance to win. In the biggest play of the game, with the crowd at its loudest volume, Greg Smith knocked down both free throws to give the Tigers a four-point lead and ice the game.
JeKobe Coleman led the Tigers in scoring with 18 points, and the Tigers also played great team basketball, with Knight (15), Richard (14), and Bradley (11) also scoring double digits. Scoota Henderson led the Longhorns in scoring with 21 points.
The Tigers will face the 21-9 Lithonia Bulldogs in the semifinals Saturday at 8 p.m. at Columbus State University. The winner will secure their spot in the state championship game to face the winner of South Dekalb-Buford Friday, March 8 at 8 p.m. at the Macon Centreplex.