Bowman is a hero in tiny Tignall

TIGNALL, Ga. --- The clock on her oldest son's collegiate career hadn't struck zero before Melissa Bowman delivered a text message. She wanted it to be there to greet the Augusta State star in the locker room.

"Don't hang your head," it said. "We're proud of you."

Tyrekus "A.J." Bowman's 26 points weren't enough to lift Augusta State to an upset victory over Division II powerhouse Winona State in Saturday's national championship game. Bowman's championship-caliber performance still hung in the subdued air as the kids moved outside of his parents' home to play half-court games across the street.

"Oh well," was the oft-repeated phrase inside the double-wide home on Anderson Street where Bowman grew up. "They did good. They did good."

The one-stoplight town just nine miles north of Washington in Wilkes County was swollen with pride for one of its own who had made it to the brink of a national title. Letters on the sign in front of the BP gas station on Highway 17 spelled "Good luck AJ."

A half-hour before the nationally televised tip-off from Springfield, Mass., about 16 people from Athens to Elberton gathered in the only place that seemed natural to watch. Pictures of A.J.'s and his little brother Mario's Washington-Wilkes teams rested on top of the television set. Framed certificates honoring Bowman as Peach Belt Conference Player of the Week and Player of the Year hung beside the sliding glass door. The mantle was stuffed with various plaques and pictures of the family's athletic glory.

All of it was prelude to this day.

"It's definitely sunk in," said Aaron Bowman, A.J.'s father. "I know he never thought of this."

Bowman's parents were at home Saturday only because his mother wasn't going to ask for time off from a new job she'd just started the week before to take the trip to Massachusetts. They were fine with their seats when the broadcast began with a video montage that included highlights from their son.

"That's good stuff," Aaron said.

Then the room got hushed as the CBS announcers gave the pregame breakdown of 37-1 Winona State -- "a team on the brink of a dynasty," Dan Bonner said.

"That's impressive," Aaron said.

"I'll tell you all right now, that's a good team," echoed Melissa.

That was confirmed when the Warriors opened their third consecutive title game appearance with five consecutive made shots.

After that, however, there is no way the decibel level inside the MassMutual Arena was any higher than in the Bowmans' living room as A.J. put on an electrifying first-half show -- 20 points on 9-for-10 shooting, including a few fadeaways, a scoop layup, a jam and an alley-oop slam that rattled walls 15 hours away.

"Did you see him there?" screamed Uncle Bird into the cell phone of a co-worker wanting to know which one was A.J.

"He on fire!" screamed half the room as aunts, uncles, cousins and godmothers jumping and shouting and falling on the floor, even with every replay.

"I think the state of Massachusetts took up all the stop signs because they can't stop him," yelled Ben, a family friend.

By the time the Jaguars took a 12-point halftime lead, the home was packed with at least 30 people, and more were spilling out onto the front porch. At least three of the men already claimed to have "taught A.J. everything he knows."

Mario, who just finished his senior year at Washington-Wilkes and said he wouldn't mind keeping a Bowman on the Augusta State roster next year, was impressed.

"He said this was going to be their year," Mario said. "I never thought national championship."

The two most reserved people in the house were Bowman's parents.

"I wait until it's all over," said the father.

Nobody expected Bowman to keep up his torrid scoring pace, figuring the second-half plan would be to feed the ball inside to Augusta big man Garret Siler. But things got tense as Winona State crept back.

"I'm getting a headache," Aunt Terry said. "They're messing up."

"It's like somebody changed the channel on the TV," said cousin Annette.

Then it got too quiet when Bowman picked up his fourth foul with 12:19 still to play and the Warriors within two points. A sense of inevitability took over, harkening back to Bowman's mother's prescient warning before the game: "They can beat anybody if they stay out of foul trouble."

For most of the game, Melissa watched in the bedroom, slowed more by pollen and stuffed sinuses than nerves.

"Even if we lose, it's been great we've come so far," Melissa said after Winona State took the lead.

Chants for "defense" and pleas for poise couldn't stop the disappointing finish. But nobody in Tignall would accept it when the cameras panned across the dejected faces on the Augusta State bench.

"Hold your head up," the women yelled. "What's wrong with y'all?"

And when Winona State started celebrating its second national title in three years, the crowd inside Bowman's house politely clapped.

They clapped again when Bowman's picture and stats flashed on the screen as the Chevrolet Player of the Game for the Jaguars. Bowman set an NCAA championship game record for field goal percentage by hitting 12 of 15 shots.

"Good game," some said solemnly.

Melissa Bowman sent her son a second text message.

"ASU was the better team," she typed, a final footnote on a remarkable collegian who went out like a champ, with or without the trophy.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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