If there was any doubt about how much the Lanierland Tournament means to basketball teams in Hall County, one needed only see the faces of the winners Saturday night to know that it still means — even in its 53rd year — a lot.
In their home gym, the North Hall Trojans staved off a determined effort from Johnson and emerged as champions with a 48-47 win.
“This is just a really good group of kids,” North Hall coach Benjie Wood said of his team after taking a moment to calm his emotions. “They worked so hard to get here and we beat three really good teams this week. It’s just good to see kids get rewarded for doing the right things.
“And we need to give a lot of respect to Johnson High School. That’s a very good basketball team and a class act. They do things the right way,” added Wood, who formerly coached the girls team at Johnson.
His current group never trailed in Saturday’s final, but was never able to gain a comfortable lead against the Knights either. After North Hall (7-1) led by as many as 10 points early in the fourth quarter, Johnson (10-2) doggedly claw its way back into the game.
Roderick English spurred the rally with a three-point play, and trimmed the lead down to four when he banked in a 3-pointer with 3:58 left to play. A little less than 90 seconds later, Johnson’s Montrell McKenzie cut the advantage down to one at 44-43 when he powered through a foul for a short field goal and converted the ensuing free throw.
After tournament MVP Ebo Smith sank a pair of foul shots on the other end, English tied the game at 46 with two minutes remaining when he knocked in another 3.
It was the first time the score had been even since North Hall’s Zach Tibbs broke a 3-3 tie with a 3-pointer midway through the first quarter, that’s as close as Knights got. Smith put the Trojans back in front with a jumper on the ensuing possession, and Johnson couldn’t convert its chances at the free throw line in the waning moments.
Smith scored 10 of his 15 points in the second half after attempting only one field goal — a 3-pointer he made — in the first half. Wood said he wanted to get Smith more looks at the basket with ball screens in the second half, but hastened to add his adjustments mattered little without the players to execute them.
“The players won this game,” Wood said.
Wood also praised North Hall post Adam Kelly, who led all scorers with 19 points. Going against McKenzie, one of the best inside defenders in the county, Kelly was crafty around the basket and finished 8 of 12 from the field.
“Adam’s a warrior,” Wood said. “He’s going to go out and sacrifice his body. He’s going to fight and scrap and give you everything he has.”
McKenzie finished with 11 points and three blocks, while English led the Knights with 13. It was a tough shooting night for Johnson. The Knights were just 8 for 25 from the field (2 for 10 on 3s) in the first half, and finished at 38 percent from the field and 6 of 15 from the foul line.
North Hall now turns its attention to a challenging Region 7-AAA slate in the second half of the season that includes fellow favorites Buford and Dawson County.
But Saturday night, Wood and the Trojans were content to soak in a championship that still means an awful lot in Hall County.
“You’re not going to beat this atmosphere,” Wood said. “It’s just going to make Christmas a little more sweet.”
Kelly and Smith represented North Hall on the All-Tournament team, while McKenzie was selected from Johnson.
Other team members included: Brian Edwards (East Hall), Tyswon Cantrell (West Hall), Shaquan Cantrell (Gainesville), Jamaad Stephens (Flowery Branch), Austin Montgomery (Lakeview) and Aaron Manders (Chestatee).
GAINESVILLE BOYS 65, WEST HALL 57: Trailing by two with four minutes left to play, the Red Elephants closed out the game with a 10-0 run to slip past the Spartans in Saturday’s third-place game.
Deshaun Watson was one four Gainesville (2-5) players in double figures, leading his team with 21 points and three 3-pointers. Shaquan Cantrell added 18 points and Caleb Hayman and Chase England each chipped in 10 points.
West Hall (6-5), which led 29-28 at halftime, recorded 16-point games from Tyswon Cantrell and Deandre Peoples. Peoples hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the second quarter to give the Spartans their halftime lead.
Gainesville hosts the Chris Mance Memorial Tournament starting on Thursday. West Hall visits Banks County on Jan, 4.
FLOWERY BRANCH BOYS 72, CHESTATEE 60: The Falcons led by 30 entering the fourth quarter of Saturday’s seventh-place game, but were forced to hold off a 19-2 Chestatee run in the final period of play to pull off the win.
Flowery Branch (3-8) enjoyed a big run of its own in the third quarter, going 20-2 during the third period of play.
The Falcons were led by Jamaad Stephens, who scored 21 points. Cody Dewing added 21 points and Darius Curry broke double figures with 10. Chestatee was led by Keelan Passmore at 16 and Aaron Manders at 10.
Flowery Branch visits Heritage on Jan. 4. Chestatee competes in the Lafayette Christmas Tournament on Thursday.