WITH Kool and the Gang’s 1980 hit “Celebration” blaring over the PA system, Jefferson students mobbed players at midcourt Friday night.
The Dragons’ exhausting 80-73 double overtime win over Hart County kept Jefferson in sole possession of first-place in 8-AA South and gave fans reason to celebrate.
If the Dragons beat Elbert County this Friday at home the 8-AA South championship — and no. 1 seed in this month’s region tournament — is theirs.
“I was really proud of the kids,” Jefferson coach Bolling DuBose said. “It was a big win for us. So now we’ve got to get ready. And the good thing is that we’ve got all week to get ready.”
Thankfully for Jefferson (14-7, 9-0), there were good times to celebrate against Hart County.
The Dragons watched a 13-point fourth-quarter lead vaporize and then trailed in both overtimes before overtaking the Bulldogs.
Making the win over Hart County all the more momentous was a tidbit of news Jefferson received prior to the ball game: the Bulldogs were forfeiting their Jan. 3 win over Jefferson (and two others) due to an ineligible player.
“We got two wins in one day,” DuBose said. “I haven’t ever done that.”
The coached added that, “I hate to win it like that. I told (Hart County coach) Eddie (McCurley) that I’ve never had that happen in the 40 years I’ve coached.”
The forfeit meant the Dragons were, again, undefeated in region play and one more game ahead in first in 8-AA South.
DuBose opted not to share the news of Hart County’s forfeiture with his team until after the game.
“What I wanted them concentrating on is we need to win this game to prove to Hart that we could beat them,” DuBose said.
The Dragons won on the court Friday thanks to two big plays in the second overtime.
Jefferson’s Andre Daniel tied the game at 73 at the 1:10 mark with a floater in the lane, followed immediately by Tyler Patrick, who picked up a steal and a lay-up to put Jefferson ahead 75-73.
“I think that kind of turned the momentum back in our favor,” DuBose said.
Will Puckett, who finished with a team-high 24 points, was awarded four free throws with 16 seconds left after Hart County was whistled for both a foul and technical. Puckett sank three of the four attempts to put the Dragons up 78-73 and ice the win.
Puckett finished 9-of-10 from the foul line.
“Will Puckett did a great job at the free throw line,” DuBose said.
The rest of the team? Not so much. Jefferson shot just 19-of-41 from the foul line. The Dragons, who led 55-42 early in the fourth quarter, missed 19 free throws in the fourth quarter and two overtimes combined. DuBose said his team’s struggles at the line remain an enigma.
“We’ve made it punitive in practice, where we make them run if they miss,” DuBose said. “It just baffles me because I’ve told the kids, we’re a good shooting team. We’ve got guys that can shoot the ball, but we’re not a very good free throw shooting team. It doesn’t matter what we seem to do.”
The Dragons’ fourth quarter misses at the charity stripe paired with Hart County’s shooting from the three-point arc fueled the Bulldogs’ comeback at the end of regulation. The Bulldogs’ Trae Gaines did most of the damage, hitting seven threes and scoring 25 points before fouling out with 34 seconds left in regulation.
“We said before the game, the ‘kid can shoot,’” DuBose said. “’Do not let him get an open look.’ The last three threes they made, we had guys all over them. That’s the problem with letting it get close late in the game. They’re capable of doing that.”
Hart County hit five threes in the fourth quarter, tying the game at 59 with a trey from Monte Teasley with 22 seconds left.
Puckett knocked down two free throws with nine seconds remaining, but Hart County’s Darren Craft sent the game to overtime with a layup with five seconds remaining.
The teams swapped leads in the first overtime. With Jefferson trailing 67-65 with less than 30 seconds left, Puckett muscled the ball in under the basket to tie the game at 67 and force another overtime.
Jefferson played both overtimes — and the last four minutes of regulation — without leading scorer Austin Thompson, who fouled out.
“We did a very good job of not losing our composure and not getting down on ourselves after Austin fouled out … I thought we showed some mental toughness,” DuBose said.
Thompson finished with 13 points, while Satchel Turpin added 11 and Daniel had 10.
Now, Elbert County. The Blue Devils (13-7) are 7-1 in 8-AA South play with their only loss coming to Jefferson Jan. 10.
With a win over Elbert County, the Dragons could lose their next two games and still earn the no. 1 seed at 10-2. Elbert County would finish no better than 10-2 if it loses to Jefferson, and the Dragons would own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Following Jefferson’s showdown with Elbert County, the Dragons face rival East Jackson the following evening on Senior Night.
“That’s going to be tough next Saturday on senior night,” DuBose said. “But we’ve got to worry about Elbert first.”
SCHEDULING CHANGE: Jefferson’s Feb. 7 game against Oconee County is now a road game. It was originally a Dragon home game. Jefferson closes the regular season next Friday, Feb. 10, at Jackson County.