MARIETTA — The Lakeview Academy boys basketball team’s first-ever trip to the state semifinals ended in a thriller.
The Lions just came out on the wrong side of it.
No. 2 seed Lakeview Academy fell to sixth-seeded Southwest Atlanta Christian 77-74 here Saturday at the Cobb Civic Center. Though they trailed by seven points with less than 30 seconds to play, the Lions (25-6) managed to take the game all the way down to the final possession.
It was the final game for seniors Ryan Lackey, Matthew Rowland, Tre Gober and Josh Randolph, with the latter two wrapping up careers as four-year starters.
They helped Lakeview Academy win back-to-back region titles and reach the state semifinals for the first time since the school’s founding in 1970.
“Once the hurt of this one goes away, they can look back and see all the great things that they accomplished,” Lions coach Todd Cottrell said. “They played really well in region the last two years and got to the semifinals and had a chance to win it. They were a huge part of that. They become not just good basketball players, but great young men.”
Lakeview Academy almost took its history-making season one step further, but heroics from senior guard DeAundrae Ballard lifted the Warriors (23-8) to the state title game.
The Florida signee, who is rated as a four-star prospect and ranked No. 94 nationally in the Class of 2017 by 247Sports, finished with 41 points, including a stretch of 16 straight.
“He’s quick and he’s tall,” Gober said. “When he got hot, he didn’t miss like five or six shots in a row. He just got hot.”
As a result, Southwest Atlanta Christian advances to the state championship game at 4 p.m. Friday at Georgia Tech. The Warriors will face No. 1 seed Greenforest, which crushed No. 5 seed St. Francis 86-56 on Saturday.
The second semifinal game started as a physical, defensive affair, one that was scoreless until Lions junior forward Evan Pitts banked in a layup more than two minutes into the game. Lakeview Academy took an early 4-0 advantage — the biggest lead for almost all of the first half — before settling into a tight contest.
Warriors senior guard Johnathan King picked up his third foul — a technical for dunking during a dead-ball situation — minutes later, but the first quarter ended with a 16-16 tie.
Junior guard Drew Cottrell hit back-to-back 3-pointers for the Lions late in the second quarter before Southwest Atlanta Christian ripped off a brief 9-0 run. But Gober stopped the bleeding with a three-point play to make it 41-35 at halftime.
“We had to be us. We had to do what we do,” Todd Cottrell said of his team answering the Warriors’ burst before halftime. “We got away from that a little bit. I think we tried to answer too fast and didn’t make them guard us.”
Lakeview Academy kept the momentum going into the second half, eventually taking a 48-47 lead about five minutes in when Gober connected on a tough layup off the glass.
But Ballard notched his 16th straight point right before the quarter ended to put Southwest Atlanta Christian up 53-51.
Todd Cottrell and Randolph, who often drew the defensive assignment on Ballard, offered the exact same assessment of his performance — “That’s why he’s going to Florida.”
Drew Cottrell sank a 3-pointer to make it 59-57 with six minutes, 30 seconds remaining, but that’s as close as the Lions would get until the final buzzer. The Warriors sank 6 of their final 8 free throws down the stretch, including a perfect 4 for 4 mark from Ballard.
But the Lions continued fighting until the end, with Drew Cottrell completing a difficult three-point play off an offensive rebound and Pitts tossing in a layup with 1.2 seconds remaining.
Fittingly, Ballard hauled in the final inbounds pass and ran out the clock.
“I thought our guys did a tremendous job of battling,” Todd Cottrell said. “I thought our attitude was great, and our effort was equally as great. We just needed to hit a couple shots here and there. Then there were a couple turnovers. In a semifinal game, that’s sometimes what it comes down to.”
Gober scored a team-high 22 points, while Drew Cottrell followed up with 18. Randolph provided 11 points, and Pitts added 10.
To even reach this stage, Lakeview Academy needed to rally to force double overtime in its second-round game against Wesleyan before beating Region 8-A rival Athens Christian for the third time this season in the quarterfinals.
Perhaps that’s why Randolph walked away from Saturday’s loss with his head held high.
“Honestly, I’m not really sad,” the senior guard said. “It sucks to lose. I hate losing. But I know we gave it all we got. We just have to live with the results. We missed some shots, but you can’t really look back on that.
“I don’t feel like it’s over. I’ve still got my guys. These are like my brothers for life. I know it’s over, it just doesn’t feel like it. I’m happy for my team because we came a long way. I know it’s over, but we accomplished a lot.”
His coach feels the same way.
“They’ve set some standards. They’ve proven that they can have a magical year,” Todd Cottrell said. “Hopefully, the guys behind them will take off from that and continue to try to build on that for the next few years. I couldn’t be more proud of them. I’ve been blessed to coach a lot of teams, and this group has really taken me on a phenomenal ride. It has been a great journey.”