The Bulloch Academy Gators have pretty much steamrolled their competition in the region this year with a perfect 8-0 record and an average margin of victory of over 20 points per game. The only team to give them a scare was Trinity whom they then beat 66-42 at home. Friday night the two teams met again, and the Crusaders gave the Gators all they could handle before holding on for a 61 to 58 win and a region championship.
“These kids showed a lot of heart out there tonight,” said Dennard. “We got in some foul trouble and had to sit Sophie Strickland and Ashantay Noble and Trinity made a run. The big thing tonight was we answered every one of their runs and made the plays at the end when we had to.”
With only one senior in the starting lineup surrounded by underclassmen head coach Chandler Dennard new inexperience in big games could be a problem. Friday night it showed as the Gators were uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball and missed write a few layups. Trinity applied full-court pressure throughout the game and the Gators struggled at times.
“When you start three sophomore and a freshman that is what you expect in a game like this,” said Dennard. “They have never been in a moment like this, even Leah Williford who is a senior hadn’t been in a situation like this before. A lot of inexperienced, but they were able to get the job done when they had to.”
In a game that featured six ties and eight lead changes the pivotal plays of the game may have come from sophomore Sophie Strickland. Strickland had some bad patches but came through with a clutch series. With the Gators trailing 42-39 late in the third Strickland came up with two straight steals which she converted into layups to give the Gators a 43-42 lead at the end of the third. The Gators would never trail again in the game.
“This wasn’t Sophie Strickland’s best game,” said Dennard. “She carried us in the first game but had problems tonight. But the last 30 or 40 seconds of the third quarter with the plays she made I believe is what was the difference in the game tonight.”
The Gators opened up the game much like they have all season with an 8-0 lead. A Strickland three-pointer extended the lead to 14-5, but the Crusaders then went on a 10-2 run to cut the lead to 16-15.
Bulloch Academy capped an 11-2 run with a three-point play by Armani Cooke. With Bulloch Academy’s leading scorer Ashantay Noble out with foul trouble, once again Trinity answered closing the half on a 13-3 run to trim the Gator lead to 31-30 at the half.
In the second half the Crusader full court pressure gave the Gators problems, and a three-pointer by Adelaide Moss gave Trinity a 42-39 lead. Strickland then stepped up to give the Gators a one-point lead entering the fourth.
In the fourth quarter senior Leah Williford banked home a three-pointer to extend the Bulloch Academy lead to 51-44. Mary Mac Powell hit a few key baskets down the stretch and a Noble layup gave the Gators a 57-50 lead with 2:25 left and despite a last second basket by the Crusaders the Gators escaped with a three-point victory.
“I told the girls that Trinity is a good team and if we were going to win, we were going to have to come out here and take it,” said Dennard. “A win like this is huge as we enter the state tournament as we know what it’s like to be in a dogfight and how to come out on top.”
Noble and Powell led the Gators with 15 points. Strickland added 14. The Crusaders were paced by Audrey Foster with 18 points.
Next up the Gators will host the opening round of the GISA state playoffs Tuesday against a yet to be determined foe at a yet to be determined time. The Gator boys play St. Andrews in the region title game Saturday at 4:00 in Bellville.
Elsewhere, Portal advanced to the region championship Saturday at 8:00 in Millen as they held off ECI 59-54. Southeast Bulloch fell to Groves 51-37 and will open the 3-A state playoffs Tuesday as the No. 4 seed at No. 1 seed Peach County.