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Chestatee girls, Johnson boys win Region 8-AAAA titles
Lady War Eagles win in final minute for first-ever title, Knights cruise to second straight crown
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Members of the Chestatee girls basketball team celebrate their 51-50 victory over Eastside in the Region 8-AAAA championship game on Tuesday at Lanier High in Sugar Hill. - photo by Jared Putnam | The Times

SUGAR HILL — Tuesday’s Region 8-AAAA championship games at Lanier High featured a barn-burner and a blowout.

Hall County came out victorious both times.

Led by Tyler Bennett’s go-ahead layup with 19 seconds left to play, Chestatee’s girls slipped past Eastside 51-50 to win the Lady War Eagles’ first ever region title.

Afterward, Johnson made it back-to-back region crowns with an 88-67 thrashing of top-seeded Eastside, the only 8-AAAA team to beat the Knights in the regular season.

Both teams earn No. 1 seeds for the Class AAAA state tournament and obtain home-court advantage for first-round games later this week, keeping basketball in Hall County alive and well for at least another few days.

“I think we keep each other sharp in Hall County,” Johnson coach Jeff Steele said. “There are great coaches in Hall County and great kids in Hall County.”

CHESTATEE GIRLS 51, EASTSIDE 50: The Lady War Eagles trailed for three full quarters and didn’t take a lead until 3:19 mark of the fourth, but they delivered when the situation called for it.

Chestatee and Eastside exchanged leads twice in those final three minutes, but Bennett’s coast-to-coast drive to the basket off the final Lady War Eagles inbound was enough to earn the program its first region title. 

“She’s one of those players that, on any given night, can do what she did tonight,” Chestatee coach Web Daniel said.

With leading scorer and Region Player of the Year Bridgette Kelly sidelined late in the fourth with a nagging ankle injury, and 3-point specialist Deanna Bradberry fouled out, the Lady War Eagles (24-4) relied on other role players to pull out the win.

That included Savanna Long, who hit four 3-pointers to score 12 points, and Maggee Wilson, who had six of her 12 points and four rebounds in the final quarter. Bennett scored 10 points and pulled down seven rebounds.

“Eastside played well tonight, but we were without the region player of the year,” Daniel said. “She makes the game a lot easier for us. The other girls, like Tyler and Savanna, they stepped up big for us.”

The Lady War Eagles (24-4), who set the program’s single-season wins record with the victory, took their first lead of the game at 47-45 when Long drained her last 3-pointer of the game.

Eastside (14-12) answered with a free throw and basket by Deshantra Kelly at 2:22 to regain a 48-47 advantage, but the Lady Eagles found themselves down again a minute later.

Long reached for a rebound before it went out of bounds and fed it to an open Wilson, who fired in an easy layup and put Chestatee back up 49-48.

Eastside drew a charging foul on the other end, and Jam Smith made both her free throws to put the Lady Eagles back up 50-49 with 26.5 seconds to play.

Bennett did the rest, driving through the larger Eastside team on her way to the goal for game-winning basket.

“Every team is bigger than us,” Daniel said. “We’re the smallest team in the region.”

Chestatee didn’t get on the scoreboard until the 5:45 mark of the first quarter, already trailing 7-0. A pair of 3-pointers by Kelly and Long put the Lady War Eagles down by one, but Eastside escaped the quarter with a 9-6 lead.

Chestatee continued to battle, but simply couldn’t catch the Lady Eagles in the first half.

The Lady War Eagles cut the deficit to one with Bradberry’s 3-pointer at 6:05 to trail 12-11. Eastside responded accordingly, rattling off seven straight points to take a 21-12 advantage.

Chestatee cut the lead to two, 24-22, with 28 seconds remaining after back-to-back treys by Long and Kayla Watson. Eastside stayed on top until the buzzer and took a 26-23 lead into halftime.

The Lady War Eagles took a 38-34 deficit into the final quarter after rebounding struggles plagued them in the third. Eastside pulled down 15 boards to Chestatee’s one.

The Lady Eagles led by as much as six early in the fourth, but a quick 9-2 run — ending with Long’s go-ahead 3-pointer — put Chestatee ahead for the first time.

Smith scored 16 points for Eastside, which takes a No. 2 seed into the state playoffs. Stephens County claimed the third seed with a win over Walnut Grove, who enters as the No. 4 seed.

JOHNSON BOYS 88, EASTSIDE 67: Led by James Hodges’ double-double and a high-scoring night by Ty
Cockfield, the Knights clinched back-to-back region titles with their surprising rout of the top-seeded Eagles.

Hodges scored 23 points and 10 rebounds while Cockfield added another 21, as Johnson (23-5) snapped Eastside’s 18-game winning streak by enjoying a comfortable lead throughout the entire contest.

“There was something different in the air about my kids,” Steele said. “Their sense of focus — there wasn’t as much clowning around at school. The bus ride over was quieter. All those things are a good sign, to a coach.”

The Eagles (23-3) earned the No. 1 seed in the region tournament by defeating Johnson 62-57 on Jan. 24. It was the Knights’ only region loss, and ended up dropping them to the No. 2 spot.

That served as Johnson’s motivator, and it showed Tuesday night.

“The fact that they beat us really helped us,” Steele said. “My guys have a little bit of pride about them, too.”

Justin Jones scored 17 points for the Knights, making three 3-pointers. Rod English added 11 points and seven blocks.

Johnson was uncontested for the entirety of the game. The Knights flew out to a 28-14 lead and were up 47-33 at halftime. By the time the fourth quarter came around, they were up by 20 at 68-48.

When the buzzer sounded, Johnson’s student section was there to meet its victorious team on the court. Cockfield provided a celebratory backflip at half court, just as he did when the Knights won a Lanierland title in December.

“We all came together,” Cockfield said. “We all wanted it, together. No one person wanted it alone. We all just had to get it.”

Johnson must now avoid another premature playoff exit. The Knights, seeded No. 1 in the postseason last year, were stunned by fourth-seeded Shaw in Oakwood to end a 24-5 season earlier than expected.

Cockfield says this year’s lineup has too much momentum to let that happen again.

“Tons of momentum, especially being at home,” he said. “This is wonderful – I’m just glad we can get back to our court.”

Eastside, which takes a No. 2 seeding into state, was led by Anthony Henderson’s 13 points.

Lumpkin County lost 67-41 to Walnut Grove in Tuesday’s third-place game to claim the No. 4 seed.

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