Region 5-AA Champions (Standing L-R): Coach John Fluevog, Tay Watson, Emory Jones, Tray Dunson, Christian Murray, Komari Clark, Nathaniel Kiser, Dekari Brewer, head coach Keith Simmons, Torrance Allen, Alijah Huzzie, Jordarius Foster, Darius Matthews, Will Hammett; Sitting: Chris Goode
(Franklin, GA) — Lagrange reporter Kevin Eckleberry stated it perfectly in the opening line of his report on Friday night’s Region 5-AA Championship games in Franklin: “It was Heard County’s night.”
Although the Braves entered the Championship clash as the top seed in the tournament and undefeated in the region, there were still many doubters that Coach Keith Simmons and company would be able to take that next step — a step not taken in Heard County boys basketball in over 50 years — that step of hoisting a region championship trophy.
Despite being undefeated in region and having the game on their home floor, the Braves faced a difficult challenge in the Callaway Cavaliers, four time defending region champions in Class AAA before making the move back down to AA after reclassification last year.
The extremely athletic Cavs had looked strong versus Spencer in their semifinal Thursday, while the Braves had to scratch and claw for all 32 minutes to find a win against the Temple Tigers.
The first quarter of Friday’s title game set the stage for what would be a hard-fought and entertaining game for the largest non-football sports crowd in school history.
As they had on Thursday night, the large contingent of Brave students and fans would make a difference in the game — providing a home court advantage for the Brave boys that they had never experienced in the seasons prior.
Sophomore Alijah Huzzie set the tone early with some strong defense and eight points, but the Cavs held a 20-16 lead heading to the second quarter.
Ironically, one of the biggest plays of the game for the Braves came in the form of a Cavalier dunk early in the second quarter by multi-sport star athlete Braylon Sanders. After the big dunk brought the Cav fans to their feet, and ensuing technical foul on the brash Sanders for taunting brought the Brave fans to their feet.
Fouls became a huge part of the game early on with 36 total fouls being called in the first half alone and 56 total being called in the game.
With Sanders benched for much of the second quarter the Braves were able to bounce back to take a 44-40 lead at the half behind strong quarters from senior Dekari Brewer and the Braves’ own elite athlete junior Emory Jones.
Brewer scored 13 of his 15 total points in the second quarter and was just all over the place defensively. The defensive play of the senior guard was one of the primary reasons the Braves survived Temple in the semifinals and his aggressive play carried over to Friday night.
Jones seems to be more comfortable on the court than he has in a long time after missing all of last season and the early part of this season due to football injuries. Darius Matthews continued to be constantly in the oppositions face defensively as he has all season.
In the second half, Coach Simmons continued to utilize his many options and again two different players would provide the highlights with seniors forwards Christian Murray and Region MVP Jordarius Foster combining for 12 of the Braves’ 18 points in the quarter.
An 18-8 run by the Braves would extend their lead to a game high 14 points before the Cavs would respond with a run late in the third and early in the fourth.
Sanders drained a long 3-point basket at the third quarter buzzer to draw the Cavs within seven points, and they quickly closed the gap to just three at 62-59 with 7:32 to play in the game.
In the fourth quarter, a frenzied Brave crowd fueled the Braves as everyone in the gym could literally smell history in the making.
Still just a three point game at 64-61 Braves with 5:26 to play, the Cavs would not get any closer because the Braves just refused to let off the gas. Yet another different Brave stepped up to have a big quarter in the form of 6’7″ sophomore Tay Watson.
“Tay Watson played huge for us in the fourth quarter,” said Coach Simmons after the game. Watson was indeed a beast on the boards and would score six points in the quarter to help cap the first region championship win since 1960.
Huzzie would also come through big at the line as he had Thursday night, this time going 5-for-5 from the line as the time ticked off the clock with a final score of 79-72 Braves.
The 79 points were the second highest total of the season for the Braves and only the third time the defensive-minded team topped 70. Coach Simmons was very pleased with the effort and grit his guys showed during the tourney as he also celebrated his first region title as a coach.
“The thing about these two region tournament games is we were never playing that badly. We missed some lay-ups early against Temple and we missed some early free throws tonight and got into some foul trouble — but that is where some guys stepped up and helped in some moments that may go unnoticed, ” said Simmons following the big win Friday.
“But I think that’s been our method of opportunity all year. It’s been ‘next man up’ — I hate use those cliches but that’s what it is — you just never know who it’s going to be.”
All Tournament Braves: Emory Jones (L) and Alijah Huzzie (R)
Emory Jones and Alijah Huzzie were named as the two all-tournament players and Simmons says that in and of itself says a lot about the depth and options of his talented squad.
“If you asked everybody before this week who would be all tournament they would have probably said our Region MVP Foster, but at the same time everybody is keying on him and he knows that and understands that — it’s not that he had bad games at all — it’s the fact that everyone keying on him opens things up for other people,” said Simmons.
Although only in his first season at Heard County, Simmons realized the importance of the title not only for his players, but for the community as a whole.
“It’s just great seeing the kids emotion tonight for as hard as they have worked they really earned this — and to see the community’s emotion — it’s big. Watching from afar and seeing that co-mingling between our players and our fans — it is huge in more ways than just basketball.”
Simmons thinks the trials and losing seasons experienced by most of these kids over the past few years may be helping them now when it matters the most, especially his upperclassmen.
“This is a great group of kids — once you show that you care — then they are a good group to have. They really deserve this after some of the trials and tribulations and coaching situations they have been through,” added Simmons.
“After feeling like they should have been at state last season, they came back hungry and listening this year Sometimes it’s about the mental not just the physical play, but it’s important to be able to play with emotion but to not play emotionally.”
Simmons continuously emphasizes the importance of the the roles of his second string players who may not always get a lot of recognition in the box scores or otherwise.
“To be able to have guys step up is so important,” says Simmons. “Torrance Allen doesn’t get to play as many minutes as he wants to, but he is one of our captains and that’s why we sent him out to get that trophy tonight.”
The Braves will host Dade County, the fourth seed from Region 7-AA in the first round of the GHSA Class AA State Playoffs this Saturday night in Franklin.
Stay tuned to HeardCitizen.com for further information and times as the y become available.