MADISON — Maturity has carried the North Hall boys basketball team far this season. For proof, see the Trojans’ performance in their 50-46 win over Morgan County in the second round of the Class AAA state tournament Saturday at Morgan County High.
Rather than crumble under the pressure of a halftime deficit and a tied game after three quarters against one of the state’s best teams, North Hall played it cool. Using experience from previous close calls this season, the No. 2 seed from Region 7-AAA punched its ticket to the state quarterfinals by outscoring Morgan County 26-14 in the second half for yet another dramatic comeback victory by the Trojans (26-3).
“We didn’t change — the kids just dug deep inside themselves,” North Hall coach Benjie Wood said. “Our kids are full of heart and teamwork. They decided they weren’t going to lose.
“We played great defense, and that’s a tribute to our kids. They followed the game plan, just dug down and did what they were supposed to do.”
North Hall is back in the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2010, where it will play St. Pius X on Wednesday in Gainesville.
Only one current Trojan was a member of the last quarterfinalist team — senior Ebo Smith, who was a crucial component to his team’s return to the third round this year. He scored 15 of his team-high 24 points in the second half, including the final go-ahead basket in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter that gave North Hall a 46-44 lead.
It was one of the many second half accolades for the ever-clutch Smith. With the Trojans trailing 36-27, the North Georgia signee sunk a 3-pointer with 3:35 left in the third quarter to kick-start a 9-0 run that tied the game at 36 at the end of the period.
Smith scored seven points on the run, as North Hall held Morgan County (23-6) to just four points in the third quarter.
“We pride ourselves on defense — it’s our biggest thing,” Smith said. “That’s pretty much what we practice all the time. Even when the shots weren’t falling, we were able to play some defense and keep their shots from falling.”
After Morgan County regained the lead in opening minute of the fourth on a 3-pointer by Anfernee Waller, Smith made the Bulldogs pay for a pair of fouls by connecting on four consecutive free throws to give the Trojans a 42-39 lead.
Smith sealed the win by scoring twice in the final two minutes of play, breaking yet another tie after Morgan County evened the score at 44 apiece on a 3-pointer by Tookie Brown.
“We knew they were going to be good down the line,” Smith said. “They were way too good of a team down the run and they’ve had good games before. I think we have a lot of maturity, so I thought we were going to stay focused and be fine.”
Smith was one of only four North Hall players to score in the low-scoring affair, as the Trojans relied more on Adam Kelly in the first half.
Kelly scored 10 of his 16 points in the opening half — an impeccable statistic for the 6-foot-4 center who was forced to make shots in the paint against a pair of king-sized Morgan County post specialists in C.J. Turman (6-foot-9) and Josh Salette (6-foot-7). Defensively, he held the two Bulldogs to eight points.
“Our game plan is pretty much the same — we try to front them if they’re at the block or kind of around it,” Kelly said. “But this game we decided to double from the forward position like a regular 2-3.”
“I guess that helped a lot, because it’s not what we normally do.”
But North Hall needed time to adjust to offensive changes, and it was somewhat costly in the first half. The Trojans trailed 15-10 after one and 32-25 at halftime, with the deficit growing as large as seven in the half.
The Trojans cut the lead to 27-25 in the closing seconds of the half before Brown scored with seven seconds remaining, then stole a North Hall inbound pass and flipped a desperation shot into the net for a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Brown was Morgan County’s lone player in double figures with 11 points. The Bulldogs’ season is complete with the loss.