CALHOUN, Ga. - Just three weeks ago, Calhoun High School opened the doors on a sparking new indoor athletic facility. Saturday, the school's varsity basketball teams christened the building some have begun calling the "Taj Ma-Hive" with a pair of first-round victories in the Georgia Class AA state tournament.
The Lady Yellow Jackets, who began the season with five new starters, overcame some nervous opening moments but gained control and demonstrated serious grit in holding off Spencer, 49-43.
The Calhoun boys also drew Spencer in their first-round game, and the Yellow Jackets endured a tight start that lasted well into the fourth quarter. Taking their first lead with 5:36 left in the game, the Jackets summoned a smothering defense and clutch free-throw shooting to move past Spencer, 59-50.
The Yellow Jackets (23-2) used a 22-point fourth quarter to ease the nerves of the home crowd and coach Vince Layson, who saw his team trail by seven points twice in the first half and by six in the third quarter with a 24-24 halftime tie in between.
"This was our first elimination game of the season, and the guys had some first-round jitters," Layson said. "In the locker room, I told them we were in a 16-minute game. And [trailing 39-37 after three quarters], I told them that we were now in an eight-minute game. I was proud of the way they stepped up and responded."
Kaelen Riley (19 points), Austin Byrd (13) Keyth Fightmaster (11) did some of their best work in the fourth quarter. Byrd's steal and subsequent free-throw conversion with 40.2 seconds left allowed Layson and the Yellow Jacket faithful to exhale.
Calhoun will face the winner betwen Rabun County and Westminster.
Doendre Hubbard led Spencer with 19 points, while Snookie Davis added 14.
The Lady Jackets used a strong defensive effort and pressure free-throw shooting down to the stretch to overcome a 14-for-47 shooting performance. In fact, Calhoun (21-7) had opportunities to expand upon a lead that grew to 14 points early in the third quarter, but a series of missed close-in shots opened the door for Spencer (15-10).
The Green Wave went on an 11-0 run to pull within 40-37 with 7:24 left in the game. From there, Calhoun stepped up its defense and strong board game, as Spencer finished the evening with 19 turnovers and made two of its final 10 field-goal attempts.
While the Lady Jackets were led in scoring by Wimberly Roe (14 points), Sydnie Parker (13) and Jana Johns (12), they received some timely inspiration from senior leader Kyleigh Carney. Leaving the game just before halftime with a broken tooth, Carney returned during a critical juncture in the fourth quarter to provide a strong floor presence, hitting a key free throw that put Calhoun up by four with 16.5 seconds left.
"It's amazing what this group has accomplished," said Lady Jackets coach Jerry Pruett, whose team travels to Wesleyan for the state's second round Monday. "We've been able to find different people on different nights to get it done. Tonight, we were able to come up with the plays when we had to have them. And it was big for Kyleigh to come back in the game the way she did. That was huge for the team."
Spencer was paced by Tatyana Griffin with 18 points. Jordan Walmsey added 10.
Contact Greg Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org