The slightest of chants began to come from the home town fans on Friday at Columbus High in the second round of the girls Class AAAAA basketball playoffs.
A handful of Blue Devils fans began singing a verse of the oft-used “hey, hey, hey, goodbye,” with 15.5 seconds left and Columbus leading visiting Gainesville by four. Columbus’ Brittany Floyd was headed to the free throw line, but even then the Columbus fans knew it was too early to sing the song in full voice.
Time and time again, Gainesville had made a stop or hit a big shot down the stretch to prevent Columbus from putting the game away. Finally, after Floyd sunk both free throws, the chorus rang out.
The Lady Blue Devils held on to beat Gainesville 48-42, advancing to the state quarterfinals for the second time in the past three years. Two years ago, Columbus made it all the way to Macon for the Class AAAA state championship game. Last year, it was a first-round exit.
The experience a handful of those girls experienced in 2014, however, played a major role down the stretch.
“It allows them to say, ‘OK, I’ve been here before,” coach Joe Cherrone said after the game. “That’s what Ariyah (Copeland) did when she was able to make that big 3-point play. Brittany Floyd calmed herself down in the second half, made some passes and two big free throws.”
Columbus entered the second half down one point, and, despite playing better in the third quarter, still held just a 34-32 lead after three. It extended that lead to eight on back-to-back buckets by Copeland in the fourth quarter to put Columbus ahead 38-32 with 4:05 left to play.
The lead was 41-36 with only 1:10 to go, but Gainesville still had a chance. Taylor Hawks made a pair of free throws to cut the lead to three at the one-minute mark and, after Gainesville stole the ensuing inbounds pass, Hawks split a pair of free throws at the line to make it 41-39 with 55 seconds to play.
On the other end, Copeland took an inbounds pass and put it through the basket as she got fouled. She finished the three-point play to give Columbus what seemed like a strong 44-39 advantage with 27 seconds left to play.
Hawks came up with another big shot just seconds later, though, knocking down a 3-pointer with 15.5 seconds left to cut the score to 44-42. Nasya Williams knocked down a pair of free throws to make it a two-possession game, and Floyd knocked down a pair at the charity stripe to put the game out of reach.
Cherrone complimented Gainesville for its elite shooting ability and unwillingness to go away throughout the game.
“They’re just a great team,” he said. “They’re very well-coached. They’ve got excellent shooters. We haven’t faced a team like that that can shoot the ball all season. They’re an excellent, excellent shooting team. We knew they shot the three well and we knew that if we put them on the line, they were going to convert.”
Gainesville had the early advantage in the game, jumping ahead 18-8 after the first quarter. The Lady Red Elephants used a tenacious full-court defense that forced Columbus into a lot of the mistakes it has made throughout the season.
Gainesville backed off, however, and allowed Columbus to get into the half-court game, utilizing the size of Copeland and Tatyana Wyatt, who finished with 17 and 11 points in the game, respectively.
“That’s the key with us,” Cherrone said. “Sometimes, we let people push us to a place we’re not comfortable with. When that happens, we make mistakes, we turn the ball over. When they dropped back, that gave us a chance to look inside, get Ariyah going and get some easy buckets.”
Hawks led all scorers for Gainesville with 20 points. Gainesville’s season comes to an end in the second round of the playoffs.