When he first glanced at the Class A Private state playoff bracket, Lakeview Academy boys basketball coach Todd Cottrell was a bit concerned.
If the top seeds were to win, the Lions would have a quarterfinal contest against Region 8-A rival Athens Christian, which they had already played twice this season. Lakeview Academy won both times but barely scraped by in the most recent one with a two-point win in the region tournament championship Feb. 11.
“It’s a challenge to play somebody three times,” Cottrell said. “There are no secrets. You can try a wrinkle here or there, but they know what we’re going to do, and we know what they’re going to do.”
When the matchup came to fruition, that familiarity benefited the Lions just a little bit more.
No. 2 seed Lakeview Academy took down the seventh-seeded Eagles 63-55 on Wednesday night in the Walters Athletic Center to advance to the state semifinals for the first time in school history. Senior forward Tre Gober notched a career-high 32 points along with seven rebounds, and thanks to those previous games against Athens Christian (22-9), his coach knew he’d have an edge.
“Tre had a lot of good looks, and we had a good matchup with him,” Cottrell said. “They had a hard time stopping him. He was fantastic.”
The Lions (25-5) move on to face No. 6 seed Southwest Atlanta Christian in the semifinals at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta.
After shaking hands with their opponents after the game, players rushed to join the student section in celebrating the school’s first trip to this stage since being founded in 1970.
“It feels amazing. I feel like this school deserves something like this,” Gober said. “We’ve been working so hard all year. I’m just very proud of our team and our coaches, and how we’ve come so far. We’ve been wanting something like this for a long time. To make history like this, especially for our senior class, it feels awesome.”
Fellow senior Josh Randolph bolstered Gober’s huge contribution with 16 points, seven rebounds and a pair of assists. The guard scored half his points in the first quarter, which Lakeview Academy closed with a 15-2 run to take control early.
The Eagles, however, chipped away throughout the second period to cut their deficit to just 33-28 at halftime. Junior guard Drew Cottrell hit one of his two buckets of the game during that span, finally finding some space against an Athens Christian team that consistently denied him any room — or the ball, for that matter — on the perimeter.
But Gober, who did most of his damage in the paint, made up for the absence of the Lions’ usual 3-point threat with 11 points in the quarter.
“I think that’s one of the strengths of our team,” Todd Cottrell said. “When they’re trying to take away the stuff Drew does, it opens up some lanes for some other guys. We’re a pretty unselfish team, and they trust each other.”
The game stayed within five points for the entire third quarter, and the Eagles even took a 42-41 lead when freshman forward Quincy Canty completed a three-point play. But sophomore guard Adam Cottrell immediately hit a 3-pointer in response, brother Drew made his only other shot with a putback under the basket and Gober hit a fadeaway at the buzzer to reclaim a 48-44 lead.
“My teammates were just looking for me tonight,” Gober said. “I had the hot hand, and they just kept feeding me.”
He hit a pair of free throws to help Lakeview Academy pull away to a 60-50 lead with about two minutes left. Despite a long-range 3-pointer from Athens Christian freshman guard Tyler Johnson (13 points), the Lions broke the defensive press and dribbled out most of the clock.
Though tense in the second half, the game wasn’t as much of nail-biter as the Lions’ 60-58 double-overtime win against Wesleyan in the second round last Thursday.
After receiving a first-round bye, Lakeview Academy had to overcome a 13-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter to even force overtime. The Lions grabbed just their second lead of the game — and first since scoring the opening basket — when junior forward Griffin Sewell hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with about 45 seconds remaining.
“I think it helped tonight playing somebody we were familiar with,” Todd Cottrell said. “I think that allowed them to have a little more of a comfort level going into a game like this.”
Having to beat a team more than once is nothing new for Lakeview Academy, after all.
The Lions did just that last year when they defeated region foe Hebron Christian four times, including back-to-back contests in the region tournament championship game and the first round of the playoffs before falling in the quarterfinals.
“We’re good at beating teams more than once,” Gober said with the grin.
After proving that again this season, Lakeview Academy is hoping it can continue its history-making run with a strong showing in the semifinals.
“We’re still playing, and for us to keep playing, you’ve got to do it just enough to survive,” Todd Cottrell said. “What’s the old saying? Survive and advance.”