For the rest of their lives, the C.A. Johnson Hornets will be talking about the day they fought back from an 18-point deficit to win the Class A state championship in overtime.
The Hornets, led by eight seniors who have played together the past six years, topped Whale Branch 71-64 on Saturday at Colonial Life Arena to complete a playoff run they felt was predestined.
“We’ve been down worse. We gave this game our all, we kept fighting and just kept believing that God didn’t bring us this far for us to lose,” said senior guard Michael Knox, who led the game with 23 points and nine rebounds.
Fellow seniors Ben Holmes and Peter Goodman each added 13 points for C.A. Johnson.
The Hornets (18-9), who trailed by nine at halftime, outscored Whale Branch 12-5 in the extra session to win the program’s first Class A title – the school’s first championship since winning the 3A title in 1989.
“I’m blessed and honored that I could deliver for them,” coach Daryl Jarvis said. “I told them when I got here, if they did the right things, we would get here, and that once we got here, no one was going to give it to them.”
And the 2013 finalist Warriors were determined not to let the title slip through their hands for the second year in a row.
“We’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Whale Branch coach Linc Lyles said. “You can evaluate if you want to, but I can’t say enough about this team, we just battled to the end, took it to overtime.”
The final eight minutes of regulation featured five lead changes as the Hornets hacked their way into the lead.
Late in the third quarter, the Hornets defense produced four consecutive takeaways, holding Whale Branch scoreless for the final two minutes of the period. C.A. Johnson used that time to cut their deficit to three. Senior Ben Holmes posted eight points in the third to put the Hornets in striking distance.
A putback from Knox made it 50-49 at the start of the final quarter, and with 7:10 left to play, a Knox tip-in put the Hornets in the lead for the first time since the first quarter.
With 1:04 to go, C.A. Johnson had a two-point lead, but Whale Branch had the ball. William Tobe’s rebounding efforts kept the Warriors from doing anything with it, and the Hornets got the ball back with 22.1 seconds to go.
When Johnson turned it over, Justin Rhode was fouled at the rim and sunk two free throws with 10.4 seconds remaining to force overtime.
“We were pretty confident going into overtime that if we did what we do, we could run these guys out of the gym, and we did that today,” Tobe said. The senior finished with six points and eight rebounds.
C.A. Johnson applied pressure from the start, but Whale Branch built a 20-14 lead after eight minutes despite the Hornets’ trapping zone. The Warriors were 9-of-16 from the floor in the first period, while C.A. Johnson was 5-of-15.
The Whale Branch lead reached 10 with 5:14 remaining in the half, and the Warriors outscored C.A. Johnson 18-4 in a second quarter run. With seven consecutive points from Justin Rhode, and a 3-pointer from Frederick Lamb, Whale Branch went up 38-20 with 2:44 to go.
“We’ve been in this situation numerous times. It was just a matter of doing what we do and stay strong,” Jarvis said. “I kept telling people, these eight seniors did not want to lose. They were not going to lose.”
The Hornets fought back as Mike Knox put up three points at the line and, fueled by three Whale Branch turnovers, the Hornets went on a run of their own.
Goodman chopped into the lead with a 3-pointer with less than two minutes to go in the half. Then he turned back-to-back Warriors turnovers into fastbreak jams, the second putting bringing the Hornets within 10 for the first time since the beginning of the quarter.
Whale Branch (23-5) led 41-32 at halftime, having outrebounded Johnson 19-6 in the half to deny the Hornets any second chance points.
The Hornets were outrebounded 40-31 in the game but punished the Warriors with 37 points off 36 turnovers, including 25 steals.