At this point in the Class AAA state tournament, late-game pressure is no problem for the North Hall boys basketball team.
The Trojans have had to endure it nearly every step of the way this season, and their 51-44 win over St. Pius X in the state quarterfinals Wednesday was no exception. They held off the Golden Lions in a tightly matched fourth quarter to clinch their first trip to the semifinals since the 2010 season.
North Hall (27-3) entered the quarter with a 38-33 lead and never faltered during two separate occasions when St. Pius cut the Trojans’ advantage just two points. It capped off yet another outing where North Hall simply stayed one small step ahead of its opponent, a common theme for the Trojans this year.
“Early in the season, we played a lot of games that were close,” North Hall senior Ebo Smith said. “We won two games just throwing the ball long and just letting it go in. I think that matured us for state, and I think we did a good job of executing.”
Smith and his fellow seniors are back in the final four for the second time in their high school careers. This time around, the Trojans will try to secure a finals appearance when they face Johnson-Savannah at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah.
North Hall coach Benjie Wood is confident he has the personnel to make it happen.
“I can’t really find words to describe what great young men they are,” Wood said. “I’m just so happy that they get to experience. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and for the seniors it’s a twice-in-a-lifetime thing.
“These seniors have been preparing for seven years. They just weren’t going to let this moment go by. They were ready.”
Despite the close contest, North Hall led the entirety of the game and even had a double-digit advantage early in the third quarter. But St. Pius (22-9), which had upset a 27-1 Cartersville team in the second round of the playoffs Saturday, closed out the period with a 12-5 run to trail by five to start the fourth.
With a 3-pointer by Will Maguire to open the quarter, the Golden Lions trailed 38-36, and kept the contest close with another single-score deficit, 40-38, as the period neared the halfway point. It was as close as North Hall would let the visitors get, as Smith hit a 3-pointer at the 2:25 mark to spark the Trojans with a 43-38 lead.
St. Pius X never was closer than three points the rest of the way, as Avery Cagle scored with 1:15 remaining to put his team up 45-40, and the Trojans connected on free throws to secure the win. They finished the night 13 of 16 from the line.
“Our kids are so resilient and so mentally tough, and they trust one another,” Wood said. “We know we’re going to stay in the game, no matter what.”
North Hall’s score sheet revealed no surprises — just four players tallying points and three of them in double figures. Smith led the way with 26 points, including 17 in the second half. Adam Kelly added 12 points and a team-high seven rebounds while Griffin Olson chipped in 11.
For the second straight week, Kelly was faced with the daunting task of defending and scoring points in the paint against a larger center. After holding Morgan County’s 6-foot-9 center C.J. Turman to just four points last week, the 6-4 post battled another player of the same height in St. Pius’ Nick Harris. Harris finished the game with 16 points and seven rebounds, but was often outplayed for the rebound against Kelly and the double-covering North Hall defense.
“We just let me play around him and get a feel for him,” Kelly said. “I guess it worked.”
Kelly scored eight of his points in the first quarter, as the Trojans led 9-8 after the end of one quarter. They began to separate themselves in the second, taking a 14-8 lead following a 3-pointer by Kelly and an ensuing basket by Olson. St. Pius didn’t score in the quarter until Harris rumbled to the rim with a dunk the 3:50 mark, but made up for lost time when Maguire hit a 3-pointer at 3:12 to trim the Golden Lions’ deficit to 14-13.
Maguire hit two more 3-pointers in the quarter and finished the night with 12 points, but North Hall racked up eight more points the rest of the way to take a 24-19 lead into halftime. Kelly hit another 3-pointer later in the quarter and Smith closed out the half with a seven-point individual run.
The third quarter was Smith’s best, as he scored 12 points in the period to keep the Trojans afloat as St. Pius began to climb back into the game.
“I try to make it a challenge,” Smith said. “If I don’t have a good first half, I’m going to try to come out and dominate the second half.”