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High school basketball: Spartans' heart too much for Hart
West Hall’s Marquise Stephens fakes Hart County’s Johnny Christopher before putting up a shot under the goal during the first half of the Spartans’ Saturday night Region 7-AAA playoff win at the West Hall High gymnasium.

Prior to the start of the opening round game against Hart County, West Hall senior co-captain Kavon Williams stood in the middle of the team huddle and repeated, “We have heart, we have heart.”

The Spartans certainly proved that statement to be true.

Down by 10 with a minute left in the third quarter, the Spartans put together a 13-0 run that propelled them to a 43-37 win, advancing to the second round where they will play Columbia on Wednesday.

“A lot of people kept saying that Hart was the team that had heart,” Williams said after the game. “They were the ones that made it to the final four all the time, and they were the better team. I wanted to let my team know that we were the ones with heart.”

Not only did they prove they had heart, but the Spartans (24-6) proved they have a pretty talented basketball team too.

With their starting lineup struggling to get things going offensively, West Hall’s spurt at the end of the third and start of the fourth was sparked by two role players: Kyle Weatherly and Jarquise Young.

Weatherly provided a defensive presence for West Hall by breaking up two passes late in the third quarter that resulted in layups by Young. The final layup came as the horn sounded to end the third and sent the Spartans faithful into a frenzy.

With momentum finally on their side, the Spartans intensified their defensive pressure, and when Rodney Gibson hit two free throws with 5:41 left to play, West Hall had tied the game for the first time since the score was 2-2.

Two minutes later, the sophomore Young hit one of the biggest shots of his young career.

Left alone on the perimeter, Terrell Penland found Young, who took no time in hoisting up a 3-pointer to give the Spartans a 39-36 lead.

“Coach just gave me the go ahead and I shot it,” said Young, who led the team with 11 points. “I felt fearless at the time.”

Spartans coach Warren Sellers wasn’t surprised by the made 3-pointer.

“Jarquise was real cool about that shot,” Sellers said. “He’s got that shooter’s mentality in that he expects it to go in.”

It did, and combined with the fact that West Hall held Hart County (17-12) to just one point in the fourth quarter allowed the Spartans to escape a first-round upset.

“They have a talented team with a lot of tradition,” Sellers said of the Bulldogs, who eliminated West Hall in the first round of the playoffs in 2006. “That’s a good win for us.”

Especially since the Spartans had to overcome such a poor shooting night. As a team, West Hall shot just 30 percent in the first half and 42 percent for the game.

Since they couldn’t rely on their offense, the Spartans were forced to play tough defense.

“If our offense wasn’t going to get it, our defense was,” said Williams.

That wasn’t the case early, as Hart County exposed the Spartans defense by getting the ball inside to Jeffrey Rucker and Johnny Christopher, who scored nine of his game-high 13 points in the first half. Rucker ended with 10 points and 14 rebounds and helped spark a 10-1 Bulldogs’ run to end the second quarter.

“We didn’t really change our defense, we corrected a few things,” Sellers said. “We really dug in and played tough defense.”

That defense held Hart County without a field goal for the final nine minutes of the game and saved the Spartans’ season.

For a team that started the season 11-0 — with a victory over Hart County included in that streak — saving the season and becoming 1-0 in the playoffs is much more important.

“This is much bigger,” Williams said. “It’s like a whole new year.”

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