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Bulloch Gators hold off late Cavs charge

State Playoff Matchups
Friday's Games
4 p.m.

    Bulloch Academy (Girls) vs. Calvary Christian at Macon (GISA Class AAA)
6 p.m.
    Treutlen (Girls) at Claxton (GHSA Class A)
    Portal (Girls) at Randolph-Clay (GHSA Class A)
Saturday's Games
5 p.m.

    Marion County (Boys) at Portal (GHSA Class A)
7 p.m.
    Jonesboro (Boys) at Statesboro (GHSA Class AAAA)

    MACON — Tough defense and good free-throw shooting helped Bulloch Academy repel a late fourth-quarter charge and take a 55-47 victory over Mount de Sales in the opening round of the GISA Class AAA boys’ basketball tournament on Thursday.
    With the win, the Gators (17-11) advance to the tournament’s ‘Elite Eight’ and will face Loganville Christian Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Stratford Academy.
     Down by 45-44 with 3:54 left in the game, BA head coach Chandler Dennard huddled his troops.
    “When we got down, I called a timeout and told them that we needed to go on an offense run right now,” he said. “I also told them that we needed a good defensive stand.”
    From the end of the 60-second stoppage of play until the final horn sounded, the Cavaliers (18-8) had just one bucket.
    “That’s how we’ve played all year long,” said a jubilant Dennard. “We have lived and died by our defense. When we got down, we didn’t panic.”
    In the final minutes, senior Bailey Smith, junior Matt Sheppard and sophomore Will Marsh were shuttled in to lead the defensive charge. Senior Forest Spence, junior Bill Sheppard and sophomores Will Rushing and Smith Reeves were instrumental on offense.
    Spence scored six of his game-high 21 points with under 2:29 left in the game to help secure the victory. Reeves scored nine points on the night and Rushing added eight. Bulloch hit 11-of-18 shots from the free-throw line in the final eight minutes.
    Dennard also credits his younger players and some early-game minutes by his bench for having an impact in the win.
    “We got into some foul trouble early,” he said. “Chandler Maxwell and Hunter Perry gave us some good offensive minutes in the first and second quarter. The sophomore class really came through for us tonight. All of those minutes that those young guys played during the season paid off tonight. Everyone knows their roles on the team and contributes. That’s one of the reasons that we are on a seven-game winning streak.”
    The win was also a measure of revenge for the Gators. Last season, the Cavs nipped Bulloch 80-79 in five overtime periods of the 2012 Elite Eight.
    In the opening quarter, both squads came out of the gate fast and furious. Quick man defenses kept the pace hot as the squads played out of control at times. Senior Themba Twala and Bill Sheppard battled hard under the basket for rebounds as shooters on each team started out cold. Mount de Sales’ Darius Wonnum emerged as a force for the Cavs. He had 13 points on the night.
    Twala garnered two fouls by the 3:42 mark and sat the remainder of the quarter. MDS’ Carson Leatherwood pushed in a layup and then hit two foul shots with two minutes left to give the Cavs a 9-4 lead.
    But Rushing named a three-pointer at the 1:11 mark to cut the lead to 9-7. After a game of follow-the-bouncing-ball with under 30 seconds to play, Spence caught up with the sphere and kissed a layup off the glass with 16.4 left to knot the score at 9-9.
    Bulloch went on a 9-0 run in the second quarter without Twala. BA’s small and quick lineup was able to field a superior half-court trap. Spence, Reeves and Marsh led the charge on offense. Marsh and Bill Sheppard crashed the boards hard. After MDS trimmed the lead to 18-12, the Gators went on an 8-0 run to take a 26-12 lead. In the run, Rushing drilled a three, was fouled on the shot and canned the free throw for a four-point play.
    But the Cavs kept coming back with their fast-paced offense. They went on their own 9-0 run to cut the BA lead to 26-21 by the 1:18 mark. Sophomore Brandon Corbin led the charge. Both squads added a bucket to a 28-23 halftime score. Corbin had 13 on the night for Mount de Sales.
    With Rushing running point in the third quarter and Spence at a forward, the Gators went up by 10 early. Spence pushed in a layup at the 6:17 mark to give BA a 35-25 advantage.
    Still, the Cavs kept coming. MDS cut the Gator lead to five, 35-30, behind Wonnum.
    Spence stopped the bleeding with an old-fashioned three-point play at the 3:46 mark as Bulloch took a 38-30 lead. The senior had a layup with 34.2 seconds remaining to put the Gators up 40-33 at the buzzer.