Jonathan Hammond scored 27 points and Wil Savage added 16, all in the second half, as Griffin Christian topped Furtah Prep 78-71 at Flint River Academy to win the school’s first basketball region championship in modern times.
After runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011 — not to mention a fourth-place finish last year after going in as the No. 1 seed only to be upset in the opening round and again in the consolation round (never mind they rebounded to reach the state finals) — this victory signaled something more than a title to the team and its coach.
“It feels like the weight is off our shoulders,” said coach Savage. “We’ve come in second so many times and fell just short so many times that hopefully this is going to push us over the edge to believe we are a championship team and we can finish championships and seasons off.”
The victory, the sixth in a row and 16th in the last 17 outings for Griffin Christian (23-7), sends the No. 4-state ranked Crusaders into the opening round of the GISA Class AA tournament 8:30 p.m., Thursday at Middle Georgia College in Cochran, against the loser of Frederica and Brentwood (which were playing in a consolation-round game of the Region 2-AA Tournament late Saturday night), on a roll.
“We’ve been feeling it the last stretch, the last half of the season,” Hammond said. “Only losing one game we knew we were going to win something special.”
No place was that more obvious than in the second half Saturday night. Leading Furtah (18-13) by three, 41-39, at the half, Griffin Christian put on a show in the second half to sweep the series between the two teams which the Crusaders started with a 77-75 overtime win against the Falcons on Dec. 11 and added to it with a 82-46 win in Jan. 22 at the school located in Acworth.
To no one’s surprise, the teams traded baskets early in the third quarter.
“We knew it was going to be a battle,” said coach Savage. “We out man them a little bit, but they have got some guys who work hard and refuse to give up whether they are down 2 or 15 — that’s why I knew we had to keep our head in the game and have plays for the end of the game to be able to finish off Furtah.”
Griffin Christian’s first big run, which received a big boost from the return of Wil Savage, who was back on the court and back to his old form after taking an elbow to the mouth and being bloodied up two plays into the game, culminated with the Crusaders taking as much as an 11-point lead, 63-52, on a shot by Aqil Gilani — one of four players four the Crusaders to score in double figures, the other being Aaron McCray with 10 points also — with under a minute to play in the third quarter.
“In the first half we didn’t box out as well as we needed to, but in the second half we really stepped it up on D,” said Wil Savage. “At halftime, coach told us we really needed to cut off the lanes, make sure we grab the rebounds and execute on offense.”
That much was obvious as the Crusaders held the Falcons leading scorer, Danillo Boscovic (22 points), to nothing more than a three-point basket in the third quarter and a free throw in the fourth.
Hammond, meanwhile, continued his torrid pace, making a layup and one with :04.5 left in the third quarter to give his team a comfortable 65-55 lead heading into the fourth.
There Griffin Christian worked its lead to as high as 12, first on a layup by Wil Savage with 7:45 to play, than as much as 13, 69-56, on a put-back by Hammond with 6:28 to play.
Nonetheless, Furtah overcame foul trouble — two of its players fouled out between the 5:36 and 4:12 marks in the fourth quarter — to make its final run, whittling GCHS’s lead down to four points, 72-68, on a free throw by Cihan Gundoz with 1:50 left before Hammond scored on a layup with 1:18 left to bump GCHS’s the lead back to six, 74-68.
Wil Savage, who scored the eventual game-winning point on a free throw with 2:19 left to play, put the final nail in the coffin when he thwarted any hopes Furtah had for a last-second rally by draining a pair of free throws with :38.5 left to provide his team a comfortable 76-69 lead and make it a three-possession game.
“When he buried the two free throws I felt pretty good because I knew there wasn’t enough time,” said coach Savage.
McCray then made a layup off a pass from Amir Higtower with :18 left to make leave his team ahead 78-69 and punctuate the victory. Furtah scored one more time, with :08.3 left, but by then it didn’t matter.
Rounding out Griffin Christian’s leading players were: Hightower (9 points and 3 steals), McCray (6 rebounds, 1 block and 3 steals), Wil Savage (5 rebounds), Gilani (4 assists), Taylor Duncan (5 rebounds) and David Thomas (5 rebounds and 2 blocks). Rounding out Furtah’s leading players were: Gundoz (17 points), Braxton Witherspoon (14) and Sam Wilson (11).
“We’re going to enjoy the victory for the weekend, but we are going to go right back to work on Monday because we have the state to look forward to,” added coach Hammond.