It was an Elite Eight matchup and a clash between two of the best eight teams in AAAAA, but Fayette County made it look like a mismatch from the beginning.
The Fayette County Tigers (23-7) never trailed in a home playoff game Wednesday against the Carver Panthers (17-14), winning 65-52 and advancing to the AAAAA Final Four at Columbus State University. The Tigers answered every attempt the Panthers made to seize the lead with a run of their own.
Fayette County senior guard Jaylen Holloway, who is a bench player but according to head coach Andre Flynn plays like anything but, spread the Tigers’ lead wide open in the fourth quarter, scoring eight points in the final act to send the Tigers to the Final Four.
“We consider him a starter,” Flynn said. “He could very easily start. He does a lot of things for us.”
While Fayette County got plenty of players involved in the scoring, it was the Tigers’ defense that allowed them to get an early lead in the beginning of the game. Carver didn’t score until 1:31 in the first quarter, and by that point, Fayette County had already put up 11 points on the scoreboard.
It wasn’t long before the Panthers found their offensive groove, and then it was up to Fayette County to hold serve. Carver senior guard Kenny Atkins converted a three-point play at the end of the first quarter and another one at the beginning of the second quarter, cutting the Panther deficit to 13-10.
The Fayette County lead dropped to one point a couple times in the second quarter, but senior Noah Gurley gave fans optimism heading into the halftime when he drained a triple from the top of the arc right before the buzzer sounded to put the Tigers ahead 26-21.
After Carver senior Jared Miller scored the first points of the second half to make it a one-possession game, Fayette County charged ahead on an 8-0 run, thanks in part to a baseline 3-pointer from senior guard Austin Nesmith.
With the lead at 34-23, Atkins went to work for Carver, scoring on a pair of layups. The Tigers never cooled down on the offensive end, however, and maintained a 43-30 advantage at the end of three quarters.
While Holloway excelled midway through the fourth quarter, it was all Gurley in the first few minutes of the final period. Gurley’s two layups and a dunk accounted for the first six Fayette County fourth quarter points as the Tigers surged ahead for a 49-33 lead.
Holloway converted on three layups, and, when the outcome was all but a certainty, Gurley threw down an alley-oop and Holloway hammered in a dunk for good measure.
Against Carver, Gurley led the way with 17 points and 6 rebounds, followed by 14 points and 6 boards from Phillip Young and 11 points from Jaylen Holloway. Austin Nesmith posted a double-double with 10 points and 11 assists.
“I’m just so proud,” Flynn said as he tried to complete his sentence before being congratulated by another fan. “It was our goal to get to the Final Four.”
Flynn isn’t going to guarantee a championship, but with only four teams remaining, he likes Fayette County’s odds. Still, he knows his team will have its hands full with Buford, who went undefeated in its region this season, on Saturday in Columbus.
If there’s any time for Fayette County to play arguably the best team in AAAAA, Flynn is glad it’s this weekend.
“We’re coming around right at the right time. We’re playing the best that we can possibly play,” Flynn said.