Joe Dix knew exactly what he was getting into when the No. 1 seed East Hall boys basketball team hosted No. 3 seed Islands in a second-round playoff game on Thursday night in Gainesville.
The outcome was simply a confirmation of those fears.
Poor shooting during a disastrous first half doomed the top seeds of the Region 7-AAA early, while a highly efficient Sharks squad built up a comfortable lead that was never relinquished inside East Hall’s gymnasium.
East Hall’s season ended at the helm of what Dix called the best offensive team they faced all season, losing 89-62 in the second round of the Class AAA state tournament.
Islands moves on to face Liberty County, which won its second-round game decisively 105-62, in the state quarterfinals.
“The best offensive team we’ve probably played all year,” said Dix of Islands. “It’s exactly what they were. They shot the ball so well.”
Islands never trailed. The Sharks shot at 56 percent (18 for 32) and got baskets from nine different players to build a 23-point advantage before intermission. At one point, the Sharks led by as much as 29 in the third period.
After East Hall turned it over on the opening possession, the Sharks vaulted ahead on a 14-4 run ignited by back-to-back 3’s from Hugh Durham — grandson of the former University of Georgia coach with the same name — and Trae Broadnax.
A 3-pointer by East Hall’s Luke Holtzclaw (six points) cut it seven with 3:17 left in the quarter, but the Sharks built it back with another extended run to make it 24-10 entering the second.
Broadnax, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, put up a game-high 27 points, 17 in the first half alone for Islands. Seniors Justin Cave and Justin Cutter were others to score in the double digits with 16 and 11 points, respectively for the Sharks. Cave especially came on strong throughout, adding a pair of dunks to the pot, his first a one-handed jam in traffic to stretch the Sharks’ lead to 25 during the second quarter.
Island’s depth even revealed itself as well, getting 15 points and 10 rebounds off the bench.
“When you got kids that know the game, it makes my job much easier,” said Islands coach Karl DeMasi. “It’s a godsend to have kids who are gifted physically and mentally. They know the game.”
Meanwhile the Vikings just never caught their stride. They converted just 33 percent (21 of 63) of their attempts from the floor, only after being held at a near standstill for the first two quarters.
DeMasi knew their biggest focus would be to halt the attack of East Hall’s Big Three — senior Mahki Brown, Sedrion Morse and Luke Cooper — and were successful at stopping two.
Brown scored a team-high 14 points — all hard earned — and added five boards. Morse and Cooper were held without a field goal for the half for East Hall. Morse notched five points in the second half to finish with 10, while Cooper managed one basket and missed his mark on all five of his 3-point attempts.
“We knew that was their big three. We knew we had to stop them, and they did a great job defensively,” said DeMasi of his group. “To hold (East Hall) to 22 points in the first half, that’s what I am really proud of. We’re hot at the right time.”
The Vikings were also outrebounded 29-21 and turned it over 11 times against a Sharks team that never let up.
“We dug ourselves in a hole, and against a team at that level, you can’t dig a hole. They’ll bury you,” added Dix.
The Vikings bid farewell to Brown, JoJo Buffington, Keilen Dowdy and Tony Martinez who played their final game. It was a group that led by example during East Hall’s dramatic turnaround at the start of the new year, as the Vikings won 13 of 14 down the stretch to reach the second round for the fourth-straight season.
With the game far out of reach in the fourth quarter and the starters exiting the court for the last time, Dix greeted Brown with a warm embrace at the bench, and a standing ovation ensued from East Hall’s home crowd.
“They bought in, really played hard for us,” said Dix of the seniors. “They stayed the course, and they were great. It’s a great bunch of kids.”
Despite the loss, Dix see’s a lot of upside in the group coming back next season that includes string of rising seniors and underclassmen.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys returning, experienced guys,” the coach added. This is a team that’s got some potential.”