COLUMBUS, Ga. — When you’re facing a team that’s 30-0, ranked No. 10 in the country and is going after its fourth state title in five years, you need everything to go your way to have a chance to win.
That didn’t happen for Laney’s boys Saturday at The Lumpkin Center at Columbus State University. The Wildcats had to battle foul trouble and a huge free-throw differential against perennial power Greater Atlanta Christian.
Laney rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit but was unable to get over the hump as the Spartans held off the Wildcats for a 66-58 victory in their Class AA semifinal game.
“(Greater Atlanta Christian) is a great team,” said Laney head coach Buck Harris, whose team lost to GAC in the semifinals for the second consecutive season. “They took away a lot of the things we wanted to do. All the credit goes to them.”
With the win, Greater Atlanta Christian now faces Calhoun (26-2) for the state championship Friday. Calhoun advanced after beating Vidalia, 54-41 on Saturday.
The Wildcats had three starters – JaShawn Brooks, Curtis Hightower and Jaylen Taylor – foul out in the fourth quarter while three other Wildcats finished with four fouls.
Greater Atlanta Christian was 31 for 53 from the free-throw line (58.5 percent) for the game, making 13 of 29 in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Laney only shot 10 free throws, making 7.
“I thought this was one of the poorer officiated games we had this season,” said Harris, whose team was in the final four for the fifth season in a row. “In the last round (against Pelham), we played them on their floor and it was called more like a neutral-site game. I came here thinking it was a neutral-site game and it wasn’t. But officiating had nothing to do with how we played tonight. You have to credit GAC for that.”
Laney (26-5) and GAC (31-0) played even for the first eight minutes and the Spartans held an 18-17 lead after the first quarter. The Wildcats foul problems started in the second quarter and the Spartans exploited them, outscoring Laney 20-7 to lead 38-24 at halftime.
Isaiah Wilkins, stepson of former Georgia and Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins, had 16 points in the opening 16 minutes and Justin Lewis had 10 for the Spartans.
Down by double digits to an elite-level team that Harris called “the best team I’ve seen all year,” Laney could’ve packed it in. However, the Wildcats trimmed the Spartans’ lead to seven – 49-42 – going into the fourth quarter and kept pushing, having three shots to get to within five early in the period.
But the Wildcats missed two shots and were called for an offensive foul.
“Our kids don’t give up,” said Harris. “We’ve played hard all season. We played this team last year in the semifinals, so we knew what we were up against and we still kept on fighting.”
The Spartans pushed their lead back out to as much as 11 at 57-46 before Laney made one last push, getting a chance to cut GAC’s lead to six, but missing a shot with under a minute to go to settle the outcome of the game.
“Even though we lost, I still feel like we had a good year,” said Harris. “We lost five games, four to teams that were in the Elite Eight and two to teams that were in the Final Four. We lost four previous games by nine points total and then GAC tonight by eight. We get 13 guys back next year, so the future is bright.”
Brooks scored 14 points to lead Laney. Zep Jasper pitched in 10 and Tommy Smith added nine for the Wildcats in the loss. Wilkins had 21 to pace Greater Atlanta Christian, followed by Lewis (17) and Troy Morrison (12) in double digits for the Spartans.