A historic season for the Banks County boys’ basketball team came to an end Thursday night in the Sweet 16 round of the Class AA state playoffs against the Josey Eagles (Augusta) 77-68.
The Leopards (23-5) came into the matchup on a 20-game winning streak.
“I thought they played hard,” head coach Mike Cleveland said after the loss. “You know, we made some mistake but they played hard.
“Our kids will give you every ounce they got. I thought we did that tonight. That’s a really good team we played.”
The Leopards led 36-30 at halftime but the Eagles mounted a charge, scoring 25 third-quarter points and gaining the lead, which they never relinquished.
Cleveland said the Eagles prompted his team to get out of its zone defense and play man-to-man defense.
“They (Josey) took advantage of our speed a little bit,” he said. “They made all their free throws down the stretch.
You’ve got to give them some credit.
“I don’t think we played bad. I thought we played hard. We didn’t make shots at times. Tough game.”
Cleveland added it was tough to tell the seniors good-bye for the last time after the game. The seniors are Avery Rylee, Dylan Nix, Stetson Boswell, Thomas Entrekin, Kahmal Wiley and Caleb Boyle.
“Those individuals, every one of them are important to this program. They all bring a different aspect to the program,” Cleveland said. “That’s a tough time. They’re crying. I’m crying and tell them you love them.
“Probably the toughest thing to do as a coach.”
Cleveland added some of the seniors hardly saw playing time throughout the season, but they are “going to be hard to replace.”
“We’re losing a lot,” he said.
The seniors won a total of 84 games.
Wiley led the team with 29 points against the Eagles. He scored 12 in third quarter, accounting for every Leopard point in the quarter.
Wiley’s first basket in the third quarter also put him over 1,000 points for his career at Banks County, a feat he accomplished in three seasons. He finished with 1,013 points as a Leopard.
“If Kahmal was a selfish kid, he would’ve scored 1,000 points a lot earlier than this, but he’s not,” Cleveland said. “That’s not his character. That’s not who he is. I just told him I was so proud of him, because he plays the right way.”
Darius Bonds finished the game with 15 points. Dylan Orr added 11 points.
The Leopards grabbed a 13-12 lead after the first quarter and increased it to as much as 10 points in the second quarter, 32-22. They held the lead at halftime 36-30.
The Eagles stormed back in the third quarter with 25 points, the most by either team in any quarter and held a 55-48 lead heading into the fourth.
The closest the Leopards chipped away at the deficit, cutting it to as close as five points, 63-58.
The Eagles closed the game out on a 10-5 run, nailing clutch free throws in the final minutes to keep the Leopards at bay.