East Hall’s relentless effort proved to be too much for Banks County in a matchup of Region 7-AAA’s best boys basketball teams Tuesday night.
The Vikings’ defensive pressure, inside attack led by Kyvon Davenport and outside shooting from Triston Cooper proved to be the difference in a 79-68 home victory that completed a regular-season sweep and improved East Hall’s record to 16-4 overall and 8-0 in region play.
The Vikings are two games ahead of the second-place Leopards with four region games to play.
Kyvon Davenport piled up a game-high 35 points, including his 1,000th career point on a second-quarter basket, while serving as a shot-blocking force on the other end. Cooper poured in four 3-pointers and finished with 21 points.
Both coaches noted the distinct possibility that East Hall and Banks County’s two matchups so far — the other was an 80-74 overtime triumph by the Vikings on Dec. 12 in Homer — might be precursors to a third matchup in the region tournament championship game.
“Banks has got a really good team,” East Hall coach Joe Dix said. “(We) may very well see them again. They’re right there with us. It’s all about who’s going to make the most plays.”
Banks County coach Mike Cleveland echoed that assessment.
“We feel like we’ve still got a lot of basketball ahead of us,” Cleveland said. “And if things work out the way I think they can, we could see East Hall down the road for a region championship. And we’d love to get that opportunity again. They’re a good team, but I feel like we’ve got a good team also.”
Davenport said East Hall is focused on chasing down its first region title since 2011.
“We talk about it all the time,” Davenport said.
Even briefly squandering a 10-point lead couldn’t keep the Vikings from picking up the pivotal win. Once the Leopards (17-4, 6-2) surged from behind to take a 47-41 lead on an Austin Venable dunk at the 4:41 mark of the third quarter, East Hall responded with a 9-0 run to retake the lead for good.
“We kept fighting, threw another punch at them, got going, knocked in a couple 3s there, got us back in the game,” Cooper said.
Dix said he was pleased with his team’s energy level coming off three games (2-1 record) in a tournament in Alaska played Jan. 15-17. He gave his players the day off Monday and held a walk-through before Tuesday’s contest.
“We really responded well, especially proud of them based off the trip we just took,” Dix said.
The Vikings’ edge was 57-53 by the end of the third quarter, and Cooper’s 3-pointer while falling down in the first 25 seconds of the final quarter pushed it to 60-53. The margin would never be fewer than five points the rest of the way.
In one sequence that was particularly emblematic of the night, after Banks pulled within 68-62, Devin Watson stole the ball and made a layup before Andy Lara stole the ensuing in-bounds pass and dished to Cooper for another layup. Just like that, a six-point game was up to 72-62.
“Our pressure was really good tonight,” Dix said.
Jacquen Hopkins scored 10 points for East Hall. Dix said Lara and Sedrion Morse’s minutes off the bench were vital in keeping the Vikings fresh to pressure Banks County.
“That’s what we love to do,” Davenport said of the attacking defense. “It’s in East Hall blood.”
Venable paced four double-digit scorers for the Leopards with 20 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. Zez Steeple added 18 points, six assists and five rebounds, with Kahmal Wiley pitching in 16 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks and Zac Orr contributing 12 points, 11 rebounds and one block.
“What we stress is handling the ball, making the right read, making the right pass and then making shots,” Cleveland said. “I think we did that a lot tonight. We gave them two runs. … That’s the difference in the game right there.”
Banks County hosts Dawson County at 8:30 p.m. Friday, and East Hall visits Lumpkin County at 7:30 p.m. next Tuesday.
BANKS COUNTY GIRLS 55, EAST HALL 47: The Lady Leopards used a 13-0 run starting late in the third quarter to go from a 31-28 deficit to a 41-31 lead en route to the victory.
Carly Winters’ 3-pointer gave East Hall the edge before Banks County kicked off its decisive run with an old-fashioned three-point play from Gabby Kennedy.
Jody Milford and Allison Smith poured in consecutive 3-pointers to cap the major spurt and give the Leopards a 10-point margin.
Winters’ trey with 5:15 left cut it to 41-36, and Kylah Mize’s trey with 1:20 to go made it 51-45. But the Lady Vikings couldn’t complete their late comeback.
“I think that’s the first game where somebody really threw us a punch and we were able to punch back,” Banks County coach Jerry King said.
Smith tallied a game-high 16 points for Banks County, which got 15 from Kaitlyn Duncan. Shelby Parson scored all seven of her points, including a 4-for-4 clip at the free throw line in the final 30 seconds, in the fourth quarter for the Leopards.
Winters paced East Hall (10-8, 4-4) with 13 points, while Jenny Edwards pitched in nine and Ashlyn Ellison contributed eight.
“We couldn’t make a shot,” Lady Vikings coach Justin Wheeler said. “Their pressure didn’t make us turn it over. We just missed layups, missed free throws, missed 3-pointers.”
East Hall welcomes Johnson at 6:30 p.m. Friday, and Banks County (18-3, 6-2) hosts Dawson County at 7 p.m. Friday.