The rollercoaster ride for Joe Dix and the East Hall boys basketball team continues.
The Vikings’ 2016-17 campaign has been a streaky one at that. But one thing Dix can confidently assess of his current bunch is they always find a way.
They certainly did so against No. 4 seed Westminster to open the Class AAA state tournament on Saturday night in Gainesville.
In what was a frantic back-and-forth scuffle to the very end, junior Mahki Brown banked in the final go-ahead basket on a layup underneath with five seconds remaining, and the No. 1 seeded Vikings knocked off the Wildcats, 65-64 to punch their ticket to the second round. With the win, the Vikings face Islands this week, an opponent that beat Westminster (12-17) decisively earlier in the year.
The Vikings (21-7) have now won 13 of their last 14 games since suffering a unsettling 50-point loss to Gainesville in the Lanierland title game.
“We’re not any pushovers,” said Brown of the turnaround. “We’re small, but you’re gonna have to make us feel small. We have a lot of guys that can do things and score — Luke Cooper, Sedrion Morse, Luke Holtzclaw. All of us, we kind of established we may be small, but you’re gonna have to play us anyway.”
Dix is the type of guy who never loses faith in his players, and he made that known to Brown after Westminster’s Paris Howland put the Wildcats ahead on a layup and 25 seconds remained.
Brown missed a potential game winner in response, but East Hall kept the ball.
“I was really down on myself, and he lifted my head up, and he said ‘you know what, you’re gonna win the game. You’re gonna hit the game-winning shot.’ And you know, I believed him,” said Brown, who put together a double-digit scoring effort with 15 points in the win.
The play called by Dix was a matching design used to win East Hall’s regular season opener against Banks County.
And for the second time, it was executed perfectly by the junior forward.
The Vikings denied the Wildcats on the ensuing possession to seal it, and the celebration commenced inside East Hall’s gymnasium. It put the lid on an already momentous evening for the school. Keith “Buford” Smith, loyal East Hall fan of 35 years and beloved member of the community, was presented with a framed commemorative photo and a standing ovation before the game.
“I am excited for the kids,” said a perspired Dix after the game. “We made some great plays down the stretch, and we were able to make the plays that had to be made. I didn’t think we played really well, but we found a way.”
They certainly had to in a game that featured 13 lead changes — five in the fourth quarter — in a battle that came down to the last possession. The last three minutes had both crowds on their feet.
The remaining members of East Hall’s ‘Big Three’ — Cooper, Brown and Sedrion Morse — stepped up as well.
Cooper racked up 12 of his team-high 19 points from outside the arc, his final two putting the Vikings ahead on two occasions in the fourth quarter. Sedrion Morse notched 18 points, also adding a string of rebounds and steals behind Cooper.
“We expect those guys to be our three best scorers, and they were tonight,” said Dix. “They made some clutch shots, and I thought Deonte Evans played really well at the point as well. We’ve got a lot of complimentary guys that chip in here or there.”
JoJo Buffington was one of those unsung heroes, drawing a hard charge on the other end after Cooper’s second trey of the fourth quarter put the Vikings up 63-62 with 3:09 left.
Holtzclaw knocked down a 3 in the opening quarter for the Vikings first made field goal, while Evans added five to the pot as well.
“The one thing that has been consistent is effort. ...this is a young group, some of these guys are stepping into huge roles,” the coach said.
The Wildcats jumped out to an early 4-0 lead after East Hall struggled to find it’s form on its first three possessions of the game. The Vikings eventually crawled back ahead on a 6-0 run midway through the quarter, and from there, the race was on.
East Hall squeezed out a 36-35 lead right before the half, only after interlocking in a streaky, but physical see-saw affair. The Vikings persistence on defense forced 10 turnovers for the half -- 17 for the contest -- but couldn’t capitalize on all of them.
“Our pressure affected them, but I thought we didn’t take advantage of it,” Dix added. “We left some points out there, and we had an opportunity to build the lead a couple of times, and just didn’t take care of business.”
Howland scored 10 of his 17 points in the second half for Westminster, including a one-handed jam off the fastbreak during the third quarter, to keep the Wildcats within striking distance.
Westminster buoyed its size underneath down the home stretch, out-rebounding the Vikings 5-1 for the first four minutes of the final period while assembling one last scoring push of their own.
The Wildcats tied it on back-to-back layups to start the fourth quarter. Consecutive 3-point plays drawn by Westminster sparked a 7-3 run at the midway mark, before a switch to a half-court man helped East Hall end the final charge.
Malcolm Strickland also aided the Wildcats scoring efforts with 14 points, followed by Mikael Sampson with 11.