SAVANNAH — The Bethesda Blazers showed why they are the top team in the GISA’s highest classification Thursday night.
Senior Ben Carter led a trio in double figures as the stellar Savannah squad pounded Bulloch Academy, 70-53, in a battle between Region 4-AAA’s top two teams. Carter netted 20 points, junior David Grayson added 14 and senior Naji Cooley had 13.
Once Bethesda (19-2 overall, 9-0 in region play) got rolling, the Blazers could seemingly do no wrong. They scored on such improbable shots and in such amazing ways that all the Gators fans could do was shake their heads in disbelief. The athletic Blazers were smooth and almost artistic in their approach to the game.
“They are the best team in the state,” BA head coach Chandler Dennard said. “There’s no doubt about it. They have lost in a championship game for the last five years in a row. They are the favorite to win it this year. Everybody knows it.”
But the fifth-ranked Gators (18-4, 7-2) had their number early on.
BA came out in its normal tight man defense but Dennard must have given his guys Mello Yello or Mountain Dew before the game because they outsprinted the athletic Blazers.
Senior guard Jaylen Evans flew into action as he repeatedly drove the lane against a loose Bethesda 2-3 zone. He also canned several shots to lead the Gators to an 8-5 lead. Senior center John Cornett worked hard inside, battling for position and offensive and defensive rebounds. The Gators took a 10-5 lead midway through the first eight minutes as the BA fans roared their approval.
Bethesda rallied back, outscoring the Gators, 12-4, down the stretch for a 17-14 lead at the end of the quarter. The Blazers spread the floor on offense so they could use their quickness on drives to the basket and pull-up jumpers. Evans had eight points in the quarter.
“We looked really good for the first seven minutes of the first quarter,” Dennard said.
In the second, the visitors really turned up the heat.
“We knew they were going to come back and go on a run,” he said. “You have to be able to withstand that run and go on one of your own.”
On offense, Bethesda pushed the ball down the floor, scoring virtually at will. Layups, putbacks, short jumpers, 3-pointers, fade-aways, no-look shots … you name it, the Blazers hit it.
On defense, Bethesda tightened up its floating zone, making a wall in the lane. The Gators turned the ball over trying to push it inside. Bulloch then tried to match Bethesda’s outside shooting ability but the BA guys couldn’t even come close.
In the quarter, Carter was unstoppable, scoring 13 points as Bethesda outscored BA, 25-8, for a 42-22 lead.
“We just gave up too many points in the first half,” Dennard said. “We were giving them too many second-chance opportunities.”
In the third, almost everything the Blazers shot seemed to work. Carter made his third 3-pointer of the night to give Bethesda a 50-28 lead at the 4:04 mark.
But the Gators didn’t quit.
Junior guard Ross Rainey took the ball to the hole, scoring six points, while Evans had 10 of his total in the quarter. He hit four straight technical-foul free throws with 54.3 seconds left and then sunk a 14-footer at the buzzer to cut the lead to 56-40.
“To close to within 14 in the second half, on a team like that, was good,” Dennard said. “It would have been easy to roll over with the score 42-22. I thought we got better tonight. That’s all that matters.”
Cornett, who scored nine, played one of his most physical games, as did junior forward Themba Twala. Twala, Rainey and senior Hosea Jones all had six on the night while junior Forrest Spence added four.
“Holding a team like that to 28 second-half points was a good defensive effort,” Dennard said. “I’ll take that any day.”
Both Bulloch's boys and girls squads travel to Augusta today to battle Westminster in key region matchups.