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Banks County boys top East Jackson in first round of Class AAA playoffs
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HOMER – If there’s a winning formula for the second-seed Banks County Leopards in the Class AAA state playoffs, it is get it to the big men.

Thursday night in the team’s first-round game against the three-seeded East Jackson, that’s exactly what they did.

Banks County junior Zac Orr scored 21 points and senior Austin Venable scored 16 points in the Leopards’ (24-5) 62-56 first-round win over the Eagles (18-11).

They play Rutland in round two on Saturday in Macon. Game time is still to be determined.

“I was proud of the kids,” Banks County head coach Mike Cleveland said. “That was a great high-school basketball game. East Jackson has a very good team and I thought that was two good teams matched-up.

“It came (down) to a couple of shots late and a couple of stops late. I’m very proud of my kids for the win.”

Orr, a 6-foot-6 junior, scored 14 of his 21 points in the second half, including three free throws in the final 31 seconds. He started fast with eight points in the opening quarter but failed to score in the second quarter.

After halftime, that all changed.

“Coach (Cleveland) is always telling me, ‘Even if you’re in a slump, just keep working hard and let the game come to you,’” Orr said after the win. “If I keep doing that, then I’m going to get the shots.

“I may miss a few, but I know not to let it get to my head, because as a good player you don’t want to let that influence you. You want to keep playing hard and just take the right shots. They’re going to fall for you eventually if you keep working hard.”

He added they will come out with the same “intensity” for Round 2.

The Leopards started cold and East Jackson freshman Drue Drinnon took advantage of the opportunity, connecting on back-to-back 3-pointers and helped the Eagles to an early 9-2 lead. Drinnon finished with a game-high 28 points.

However, Orr and Venable combined for 10 points (Orr 8, Venable 2) as part of a 12-2 run and the Leopards led by one (14-13) after the first.

“I just got a good start,” Orr said. “I was feeling my shot and it just kept going. I just felt like I could penetrate their (East Jackson) zone and just get the shots I was looking for all night.”

Drinnon hit his third 3-pointer to start the second quarter and a back-and-forth tussle for the lead ensued. Venable added six points for the Leopards, but it was East Jackson’s Devonte Tuggle who made the biggest splash with seven points, including a 3-pointer to give the Eagles the lead 27-26 at halftime.

Tuggle finished the game with 13 points.

Down 31-29 in the third quarter, the Leopards found another gear as Orr and junior teammate Zez Steeple combined for 13 points to close the quarter and put the Leopards ahead for good (42-31).

Steeple finished the game with 10 points.

The Eagles cut the deficit to four points twice (48-44, 50-46) behind Drinnon’s 14 fourth-quarter points, but the rally fell short as Venable scored eight points and Orr his final seven to put the game away.

“They (Orr and Venable) played well. I thought everybody played well,” Cleveland said. “Zez really stepped it up in the second half and played well. Total team effort right there.

“That’s a great win for our program. Another step as we try to build this program. Really proud of the kids. The kids stuck together. We came out slow. Didn’t look good earlier. Man, fought back. They gave everything they had. Left it on the floor. That’s all you can ask for from a bunch of high-school kids. I’m very proud of them.”

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