By coach Jeff Steele’s estimation, free-throw shooting cost his Lumpkin County boys basketball team seven wins this season.
On Wednesday, it helped the Indians reach the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
No. 5 Lumpkin County sank 7 of its final 8 free throws to hold off fourth-seeded North Hall 55-49 in the first round of the Region 7-AAA tournament at East Hall. The Indians (13-13) survived a back-and-forth game to punch a ticket to Friday’s semifinals and guaranteed spot in the postseason.
“We won it at the free-throw line,” Steele said. “We made free throws down the stretch. We missed eight in a row when we played (North Hall) last Friday and lost by three. We made them down the stretch today, and we won. That’s how huge it is.”
The Trojans (14-12), who swept the regular-season series against Lumpkin County, saw their season end despite a frantic fourth-quarter push that erased a double-digit deficit.
“In our region, everybody is so balanced and competitive,” North Hall coach Tyler Sanders said of trying to beat the same team three times in a season. “That’s what you’re going to get. Every region game we were in was like that one right there. We won some of them, we lost some of them.”
The Trojans lost the last one, causing them to miss the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
They had their chances, though.
After North Hall made it 48-47 with less than two minutes to play, senior guard Evan Easton attempted a short-range jumper that bounced off the rim. The Indians went on to close out the game from the charity stripe.
“They made a shot, we missed a shot. That’s sort of what it was,” Sanders said. “When you get to this time of year, it really comes down to a couple small plays, making the little plays. They just did it tonight a little better than we did.”
Lumpkin County started this game of runs by surging out to an early 12-4 advantage as the Trojans missed their first five shots. But North Hall stormed back with a 15-5 burst to take its lone lead of the game, only for the Indians to enter halftime up 25-23.
Senior Zack Pulley, who led all scorers with 21 points and added five rebounds, ended another run by lofting a hook shot to put Lumpkin County up 44-34 with 45 seconds left in the third quarter.
“That game was pretty intense,” Pulley said. “Nobody was talking. It was just both of us out there playing our game.”
But the Trojans were primed for one final push, starting when senior guard Justin Rabb shot his team’s only two free throws of the night a minute into the final period. Classmate Alden Lewallen (15 points) later drilled a 3-pointer to make it 46-43, and the deficit shrank to just one point when Alec Volle (10) connected on a putback.
Then Easton, who battled an injury through the second half of the season, misfired on his shot. North Hall turned the ball over on its next two possessions, and the Indians made it pay with some clutch free-throw shooting.
“Us six seniors really stepped up when we needed it,” said Pulley, who region coaches recently named the Region Player of the Year. “We hadn’t been hitting free throws well toward the end of games. But our seniors stepped up because they knew this could be our last game.”
They’ll get to play again at 8:30 p.m. Friday at Union County when they take on No. 1 seed Greater Atlanta Christian, which had a first-round bye. Lumpkin County lost both of its games against the Spartans this season.
The same was true for the Indians against North Hall, but it didn’t matter Wednesday night.
Steele said Lumpkin County finally bested the Trojans by abandoning the press defense it used in their first two contests.
Finally finding consistency from the free-throw line didn’t hurt, either.
“I’m so happy we could get it together at the right time,” Steele said with a smile. “It’s all worth it now.”
EAST HALL 78, FANNIN COUNTY 62: The second-seeded Vikings had a little more trouble with No. 7 seed Fannin County than they experienced in their first two meetings this year.
East Hall (18-7) needed to overcome an early 11-6 deficit then stave off a late Rebels comeback to come away with a victory in the first round of the region tournament Wednesday night.
Senior forward Mahki Brown led the team with 19 points, junior forward Sedrion Morse pitched in 16 and sophomore guard Trevor Rider added 15 in the winning effort.
The Vikings had previously beaten Fannin County (8-17) by 30 and 20 points this season, then seemed poised for another blowout victory after a 29-5 first-half run. But senior guard Logan Holt kept his team in the game with 19 points and 10 rebounds, while East Hall committed 10 second-half turnovers.
Senior guard Clay Ware had 14 points, while senior center River Dixon notched 10 for the Rebels, who had gone winless in region play this season.
East Hall will take on No. 3 seed Dawson County in the region tournament semifinals at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Union County.
DAWSON COUNTY BOYS 63, UNION COUNTY 49: The No. 3 seed Tigers used a 13-4 run in the third quarter to pull away for a first-round region tournament win Wednesday night.
The first half was nip-and-tuck the whole way, with neither team building a lead of more than four. But junior Cullen Reed scored 13 of his game-high 22 points in the second half as Dawson County (14-11) punched its ticket to the playoffs.
Marty Kronz led the No. 6 Panthers (10-16) with 11 points, while Sawyer Drake produced 10 points and five rebounds in his team’s final game of the season.
Reed added six assists, five rebounds and a block to his scoring total. Juniors Ryan Gallenkamp and Jeremiah Crumley were the only other players to score in double digits with 14 and 13 points, respectively.
The Tigers will face No. 2 seed East Hall in the semifinals at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Union County.