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High school basketball: Senior-laden Falcons capture program's first playoff win in decade
Current class at Flowery Branch draws strength from strong bond
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Flowery Branch's Patsheko Lutumba (4) jumps with the ball during the game between Flowery Branch and Johnson in Flowery Branch, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. Flowery Branch defeated Johnson 51-40. - photo by David Barnes

When a celebration ensued after the Flowery Branch High boys basketball team’s first-round playoff victory on Saturday, Feb. 17, in Villa Rica, coach David Sokol did not realize the enormity of the moment.

The fifth-year coach acknowledged it was a big night for the team and community, but it was also a long time coming for a group that has stuck together from a young age.

The third-seeded Falcons (18-11) overcame a six-point, fourth-quarter deficit to win their first playoff game in a decade, upsetting No. 2 seed and sixth-ranked Villa Rica, 45-44, on the road in the Class 5A tournament. They are now one of the seven area teams left standing in the state basketball playoffs, as Flowery Branch next travels to face No. 1 seed Lithonia on Thursday at a time to be determined.

“Before the season, when we talk about certain things individually and what they want to accomplish, one of the things they wanted to do was advance in the tournament,” Sokol said. “I was happy for the players. It was good.”

It was even sweeter for the Falcons’ seven seniors, whose win comes one year after a heartbreaking loss on the same stage, when they dropped a tight battle to eventual state quarterfinalist Riverwood.

With the win, this current Falcons flock is the first to advance in the state tournament since the program’s quarterfinal run under former coach Todd Cottrell in 2007-08.

“It feels great,” senior guard Patsheko Lutumba said. “Not a lot of people can say they’ve broken a streak like that.”

It was a first-round triumph Sokol’s seven seniors orchestrated from the get-go, though their solid chemistry manifested late. With the clock ticking down from the 30-second mark in the fourth period, senior point guard Blake Coxworth weaved his way upcourt before swinging it outside to fellow senior Joey Nidoy, who confidently drilled the equalizing 3-pointer with 25 ticks left.

At 44-all, Lutumba came down with an offensive board and drew contact with 1.6 seconds left. Emboldened by Coxworth’s few words of encouragement, Lutumba sank the go-ahead free throw before strategically missing his second attempt to keep Villa Rica from a last-ditch inbounds play.

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Flowery Branch's Blake Coxworth (10) dribbles downcourt during the game between Flowery Branch and Johnson in Flowery Branch, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. Flowery Branch defeated Johnson 40–51. - photo by David Barnes

“Blake ran up to me and said, ‘Confidence is where you can make it,’” Lutumba said. “I got to the line and, yeah, it was just history from there.”

Nidoy came right back to secure the rebound off Lutumba’s misfire to seal the monumental victory for Flowery Branch. 

“We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, know when to calm (ourselves) down and pick (ourselves) up,” Quick said. “We were ready to thrive in the environment.”

Quick tallied a team-leading 14 points to pace the Falcons, followed by Myles Janess with nine.

“We didn’t ever feel like we were out of the game. ... We knew these kids were gonna fight for one another,” said longtime assistant coach Jimmy Sorrells, who also coached this year’s senior class at the junior varsity level.

While it hasn’t always equated to wins, Sokol said, he doesn’t have to do much to boost team morale — at least in the last four years with this current class.  

“They love each other, and it’s fantastic to coach a team like that,” Sokol said. “It makes it easier on me, you know, when they bring energy and excitement every day in practice.”

Lutumba could trace the group’s tight-knit bond all the way back to the players’ time together at C.W. Davis Middle School. To maintain camaraderie, Sorrells said the parents of each team member organize group dinners throughout the season.

Not that they needed it.

“We all came up the same way. We have hung out as a group for a while now,” Lutumba said.

For Quick, the roots go a bit deeper, having known many of his teammates since elementary school. The Falcons guard felt the turning point for this particular bunch came when its eighth-grade team fell on the championship stage, its only loss that year.

“That was kind of heartbreaking, but we really came together that season, learned our personalities, found out our strengths and weaknesses,” Quick said. “It’s carried us through high school.”

Clearly, Flowery Branch High inherited players who stick together and play for one another.

“Nobody moved away, nobody transferred. ... It’s just one of these things where this group of kids have really bonded over all these years,” Sorrells said. “Being seniors, you just know when they come onto the court, they are gonna give you everything they got.”

Since finishing with a 5-22 mark his first season at the helm (2013-14), Sokol and his core group have had led the Falcons program to three straight winning seasons and back-to-back playoff appearances, including the Falcons’ historic playoff win Saturday. 

Flowery Branch appeared to strike a new gear during the Region 8-5A tournament two weeks prior, during which it almost pulled off the upset of the tournament Feb. 9. The Falcons rallied from a double-digit deficit before falling short against top-ranked Buford, 49-47, in the semifinals.

Quick said the team’s focus has continued to be a day-to-day process ever since.

“We’re just playing really good basketball right now. We want to get as far as we can,” Quick said.

Now the Falcons are another step closer to just their second quarterfinal appearance in program history, with Lithonia (22-6) — ranked third in the Class 5A, per Maxpreps — on deck. The Bulldogs, who defeated Banneker 57-49 in the first round of the playoffs, front a sound half-court defense, Lutumba said. 

As for the preparation, Sokol said they’ll go through the usual routine leading up to their second-round game Thursday.

He’ll have plenty of help getting his younger guys motivated.

“Hopefully we can make it to the third (round) after playing with Lithonia and just keep it going, keep it rolling,” Lutumba said. “ ... We all want our senior year to be a big one.”

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