OAKWOOD — For Johnson senior Montrell McKenzie, the game turned on a dunk.
It wasn’t the game winner, as Eastside responded seconds later to even the score up once again late in the fourth quarter, but it sent the message.
“I came out slow, and in the third quarter I played slow,” McKenzie said. “But that dunk motivated me and my team.”
The two-handed slam with 1:35 remaining got the gym rocking, and the ensuing Johnson basket delivered the final blow, as point guard Drew Dunham sank a pair of free throws with 16 seconds left to give the Knights a 51-50 win and their first region title since 2005.
After Eastside’s desperation 3-pointer bounced off the rim, Dunham grabbed the rebound, ran up court and was mobbed by Johnson fans after the final whistle.
The Knights (24-4) will play the No. 4 seed from Region 5-AAAA next week in the first round of the state tournament.
“They didn’t play well,” Johnson coach Jeff Steele said of his squad, which had just 28 points entering the fourth quarter. “But they refused to lose.”
McKenzie played a large part in the refusal. He had two points entering the fourth quarter, at which point he grabbed a rebound and recorded a putback to start a 13-2 run that took Johnson from a 35-28 deficit to a 41-37 lead with 4:15 remaining in the fourth quarter, at which point the game was back and forth until the end. In all, McKenzie scored 13 of his 15 points in the final quarter to help lead the Knights to the win.
“I kept telling him, show them why you were voted player of the year,” Steele said of his lone senior. “And he took over.”
Along with McKenzie, Steele credited the defense with slowing Eastside in the second half, which enabled the Knights to get back into a game they trailed in by as many as 13 points.
It was a far different experience than the first meeting between the two teams during the regular season, when Johnson won by 20 points and never trailed.
“We just got to play Eastside basketball,” Eagles coach Gregory Freeman said. “That’s how we play. We just missed some free throws down the stretch.”
Eastside (16-9) went 1 of 6 from the free throw line in the final quarter, while Johnson went 5 of 7.
Eastside senior Quindarrious Russell led all scorers with 19 points and Anthony Henderson added 14 for the Eagles, who will play the No. 3 seed from 5-AAA in the first round of the state tournament.
Freeman was pleased with his team’s performance.
“We were the better team,” he said. “But we missed those free throws.”
Eastside’s Treyvon Francis hit a layup to tie the game at 49 with 1:25 left, just after McKenzie’s dunk, and sunk a free throw with 26 seconds left to put Eastside ahead 50-49, setting the stage for Dunham’s go-ahead free throws.
In addition to McKenzie’s 15 points, Roderick English and Dunham added 11 each and Ty Cockfield finished with 10.
The game came with an intense atmosphere and lived up to a region title bout, featuring an Eastside team that crashed the boards with zeal all night long and a couple of clutch moments by Dunham, the Johnson point guard, who hit a layup just before the halftime buzzer and hit a contested jump shot and free throw for a traditional 3-point play during Johnson’s late run to retake the lead.
Steele told his players to use the experience of playing in the Lanierland championship game, when the Knights lost 48-47 to North Hall.
“What I kept telling them was to pull from that Lanierland championship game,” he said. “It’s a combination of all their hard work. They deserve what they won.”
When the coach could finally breathe again, he could start to envision where the region title banner would go on the gym rafters.
McKenzie was thinking of that banner as well.
“Every time I come back to this gym, I can tell my kids that I helped hang that banner,” he said.
MADISON COUNTY GIRLS 54, CHESTATEE GIRLS 26: The Lady Red Raiders held the Lady War Eagles without a field goal until the final 1:30 of the first half and cruised to the Region 8-AAAA title Friday at Johnson High.
Chestatee, which has yet to win a region title in school history, fell in the region championship game for the second consecutive season.
The Lady War Eagles (22-6) will play the No. 3 seed from Region 5-AAAA next week in the first round of the state tournament.
Madison County (20-8) built a 24-5 lead through most of the first half before Sam Brown (team-high 11 points) sank a 3-pointer to cut the Lady Red Raiders’ lead to 16. Chestatee didn’t hit a 2-point basket until early in the fourth quarter as the taller Madison County squad frustrated nearly every Chestatee try at a close shot.
Chestatee finished 3 of 15 shooting in the second half after going into the half down 24-11. Madison County was a perfect 6 of 6 shooting in the third quarter.
Chestatee finished 17 of 22 from the free throw line but made only five field goals, three from long range.
Madison County outrebounded Chestatee 32-26.
Elise Coberly, the co-Region 8-AAAA Player of the Year, led Madison County with 17 points. Mya Moss added 14 for the Lady Raiders, who entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed behind No. 1 Chestatee. The Lady War Eagles, who also got nine points from Erin Clifford, had edged the Lady Red Raiders 59-57 in their lone regular season meeting.