OAKWOOD — The Chestatee boys basketball team’s solid second half of the season almost yielded a state playoff spot, but one game still stood in the way.
Despite winning nine of their last 12 regular-season games after a 3-10 start, the War Eagles will miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year after a 78-56 loss to Stephens County in the first round of the Region 8-AAAA Tournament on Tuesday at Johnson High.
Chestatee (12-14) closes out the year having more than doubled its win total from the previous season, a fact that coach Gary Barnes says will make his team even better next season.
“One good thing is that the seniors left us with some success,” Barnes said. “We know how to win a little bit now, so hopefully we can build on it next year.”
The War Eagles cut Stephens County’s lead to single digits on occasion in the first half, but never caught up to the Indians (16-10), who are headed to the state playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Chestatee struggled to gain an offensive edge from the perimeter, something it relied on during its impressive surge during the final six weeks of the season. The War Eagles made just four 3-point attempts, and Stephens County’s zone defense didn’t offer much of an opportunity to do much else in the paint.
“They’re so long and athletic that we have to hit from the perimeter, and we didn’t,” Barnes said. “When you’re not hitting your 3s against their zone, it makes it wider and tougher to get in things in the paint.”
Keelan Passmore, one of Chestatee’s four seniors playing in their final game, was his team’s only player in double figures, scoring 11 points. Justin Jones added nine points, all of them coming consecutively in the fourth quarter when he scored a basket, the ensuing and-one free throw and a pair of 3-pointers.
Stephens County, which will face Johnson in the tournament semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, was led Aalijah Drinkard and Cody Helgeland, who each scored 15 points. Fred Smith added 12 points.
Drinkard scored 12 of his points in the first half, when the Indians took a 27-16 lead after one quarter and 48-36 advantage after two. They enjoyed their best defensive performance of the night in the third, when they held Chestatee to just four points and one basket from the field. Jordan Pulliam scored all four points for the War Eagles.
Stephens County, which lost to Chestatee 87-81 on Jan. 29, outscored the War Eagles 16-15 in the fourth to secure the win.
“When we beat them we had 15 threes, and we barely beat them then,” Barnes said. “We’ve been trying to run this system for a couple of years — trying to play fast and shoot a couple of threes. You set yourself up for some beautiful nights, but when you’re not hitting it makes it tough.”
JOHNSON BOYS 64, LUMPKIN COUNTY 30: The Knights secured their spot in the state playoffs for the first time since 2010 with a big win over the Indians on Tuesday.
Despite being an offensively-charged team, Johnson (22-4) demonstrated its defensive prowess in the first-round game, recording a season best in points allowed. Lumpkin County never scored more than nine points in a quarter and trailed 33-16 at halftime.
Ty Cockfield led the Knights with 17 points, 15 of them coming in the first half. Roderick English added another 15 and Montrell McKenzie added another 14 points. With his 17 rebounds, he recorded his 25th double-double of the season.
Johnson continues tournament play at 8:30 p.m., when it hosts No. 5 seed Stephens County.
Lumpkin County (4-23) was led by Jacob Haskill, who scored 10 points. His first basket was the most notable, when he connected an arcing pass to the net for an alley-oop.
With the loss, Lumpkin County’s season is now complete.