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State title was 43 years in the wait
Coach Darrell West gives a quick pep talk to the Highlanders during Saturday’s championship game against Bethesda. - photo by Bryan Steele /
The First Presbyterian Christian Academy Highlanders brought home something Saturday Liberty County had not seen for 43 years — a state basketball championship.
The three-year-old basketball program — two as a varsity squad — made it to the final four last year but was eliminated by Bethesda, which eventually lost to David Emanuel, 2006-07 champs.
This season, the Bethesda Blazers earned top ranking in the GISA. And win after win they proved they would be there at the end.
No one, however, expected the Highlanders to be in the final two. No one, but Highlander coach Darrell West and his squad.
At the beginning of the season he said he expected to make it to the final four and hopefully take it all the way. And, he said, Bethesda was the team to beat.
But the Highlanders posted victory after victory and actually beat Bethesda in front of a home crowd in their first meeting. Bethesda returned the favor on their Savannah turf. And the teams met a third time in the post season when Bethesda won the 2-A region crown.
The Highlanders had to settle for region runner-up.
“When we lost to Bethesda in the region championship, I had this feeling that if we saw them again we would beat them,” West said. “And I didn’t let that feeling get away from me. I kept thinking positive, even when it got close.”
The Blazers gave the Highlanders a good run for the title, but a large and early lead quickly dwindled and the Hinesville team managed to hang on to a 54-49 victory.
“We were up 25 and we tried to stall the ball,” varsity assistant coach David Linderman said. “When we did that, it swung the momentum back to them. They put a couple of little runs together and we didn’t score when we stalled the ball.
Joey (Bell) made some big free throws and pretty much iced the game. Hakeem (Golden), AJ (Ansley) and Joey were rebounding a lot. Joey had a double-double that day with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Hakeem and AJ had a bunch of rebounds. AJ sprained his ankle but still came back in to finish the game. The way Terrence Alston ran the ball and set the floor up I just knew we could not lose that day.”
Linderman said he looked down as the clock ticked to zero and just kept repeating, we won, we won state.
“Afterwards we all ran on the floor and the first person I grabbed was Mike (Brown),” he said. “He was the first person I saw and I think I jumped a little higher than I usually do when we win a close game.
He said his players earned the win.
“I was just happy to see them win.”
West said Alston poured his heart into the game.
“I think I played pretty well,” Alston said. “I ran the offense real well. I think we all played hard nose defense. We had to because the two post players they had played well and we had to shut that down.”
Assisting in the victory was Bell, who had posted a career-high 44 points in semifinal against Fullington.
“I was not really thinking about it when I was playing,” Bell said about the earlier game. “I just kept getting open shots and I just kept taking them.”
Bell said he’s been playing since the age of 3 or 4 and said he just kept watching the clock in the final moments of the championship game.
“I just wanted the clock to hurry up and go faster,” he said.
Another top scorer, Brown said he felt good despite not being able to put up as many points as he would have liked.
“I was being defended but I still managed to score points,” he said. “It felt good. It was like, yes, we finally took the state championship. This is not my first championship but it was the first high school state championship and I hope to do it next year.”
Brown, Alston and Bell were named to the 2007-08 All-Region Team.
Playing since the fifth grade Golden knows it took a team effort.
“I did what they asked me to do,” he said. “Box out, grab the rebounds and passed, kept my eyes open for the open man. Most of the time TA will pass it to me in the middle and Mike or Joey will be open in the wing so I just give it to them for the shot. It’ instinct, the coach has established who are the shooters on the team so I’ll always give them the chance to shoot before me.”
Headmaster and Athletic Director Reggie Burgess said the fans were ecstatic.
“I was just glad there was not another minute on the clock,” he said. “The guys played a fantastic game and my concern was to make sure that when the fans stormed the court the little ones we took with us were safe. It was good to see as many fans as we had out the pour onto the court.”
Burgess credited the players and coaches.
“They did a fantastic job of working with these young guys,” he said. “It’s just great, and we will see what will happen next year with everybody coming back.”
In addition to the championship trophy, Burgess said coach West won the single A coach of the year award.
“It means a lot,” coach West said of winning state. “Liberty County and Hinesville have tried to win a state basketball title for a while now...
“Before the game he (Bethesda coach Mickey Minick) shook my hand and said ‘you know I love you.’ I looked at him but didn’t say anything at that moment.”
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