DECATUR — With every West Hall 3-pointer that missed its mark and every Columbia free throw that didn’t, a little Spartan hope perished.
West Hall threw everything it had at the defending state champs Tuesday night in an attempt to overcome a growing fourth-quarter deficit. They fouled often, subbed liberally and pressed frantically, but as the final seconds ticked away the Spartans had no choice but to accept a 68-52 loss in the second round of the Class AAA state playoffs.
“That’s a championship team,” West Hall coach Warren Sellers said of Columbia. “We had to lengthen the game in the fourth quarter and hope that they would miss their free throws. But they made (16) out of 21. That’s what championship teams do.”
The Eagles (27-3) will continue their quest for a second straight state title when they meet the winner of Troup and Murray County on Saturday night in Dalton.
For the Spartans (24-6), who were ranked as high as No. 2 in the regular season, the season ends on a sour note.
“I can’t even describe the way it feels right now,” senior guard Jarquise Young said. “We wanted to win and we thought we could. But they won, so I guess the deserved it.”
The win extends a pair of streaks for Columbia. The Eagles haven’t lost to a Class AAA team in Georgia since the 2009 semifinals — 38 straight wins — and have won 10 straight this season, most of which have come in dominating fashion.
Entering Tuesday, Columbia had won its last nine games by an average score of 71-40. No team had topped 48 points and five had failed to reach 40.
West Hall looked like it might bring all that Eagle momentum to screeching halt in the first quarter.
Led by brothers Shunquez and Jamaad Stephens, the Spartans led for the better part of the first half. They held a 15-10 advantage after one quarter and kept the Eagles at arm’s length until halfway through the second period.
“(Columbia is) good at throwing the knockout punch early,” Sellers said. “We knew we had to stay away from that. We came in with the intention of just playing an eight-minute game, taking a break, drinking some water, then going back out there and playing another one.
“That was our mentality, and for a while, it worked.”
But slowly, the Eagles began to assert themselves, showing length and athleticism on defense and executing their half-court sets with precision. With four starters listed at 6-foot-4 or taller, Columbia found success with a half-court trap on defense that limited penetration from West Hall’s guards and took the offense out of its rhythm.
On the offensive end, the Eagles took the lead and built on it with smooth shooting and razor-sharp execution.
By the time the third quarter ended, they held a 46-30 lead.
It grew to as much as 18 before the Spartans began chipping away. They cut the lead to 11 twice, but Columbia would let them get no closer.
At one point, the Eagles were 3 for 3 on field goals and 12 of 14 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter as West Hall was forced to foul. Meanwhile, the Spartans couldn’t get a 3-pointer to fall, making just one of 10 attempts in the fourth quarter.
“(West Hall) pushed us to our limit,” Columbia coach Phillip McCrary said. “That’s a good team. They made us find something we didn’t know we had within ourselves.”
Young led the Spartans with 15 points, while Jamaad Stephens had 12. Shunquez Stephens finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds in his final game as a Spartan.
Columbia’s sophomore point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen — the only Eagle starter under 6-4 — led all scorers with 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Algie Key added 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting.