DULUTH – When Rockdale gets it going in the open floor, watch out. Fayette County learned that first hand Wednesday night as the Bulldogs ran wild in a 20-point second quarter to build a double-digit lead en route to a 66-64 win in the Class AAAA semifinals at Gwinnett Arena.
It wasn't easy though. Rockdale led by as many as 19 twice only to see Fayette County storm back in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs opened the final quarter with a 56-41 lead before Fayette County pulled to within two with 1:36 to go in the game.
"That is one of the finest basketball teams in the state," Rockdale coach Alvin Williams said. "I knew they were going to make a run. That's all we talked about at halftime. Could we withstand the run? It was that simple. Good teams – great teams make a run always."
Bernard Thompson hit two clutch layups late in the game and came up with a late steal and the Bulldogs held on to move into the final to face Miller Grove who defeated Jonesboro earlier. Thompson finished with 14.
"He (Thompson) is a grade A player. He can play on any level," Williams said. "You're a fool if you don't quote Bernard Thompson."
Darion Clark was saddled with early foul trouble. Clark picked up his second foul with 4:22 to play in the first quarter and was forced to sit. Meanwhile Fayette County was aggressive throughout the opening period. Both teams in fact attacked the rim but neither could get much going from outside.
Rockdale's Deshaun Sunderhaus opened the game scoring the Bulldogs' first five points including a rare three. Fayette County responded with five straight to take a 7-5 lead and the two teams traded points the rest of the way. The Tigers led 16-15 after at the end of the period.
Clark returned at the beginning of the second and finally scored his first points with 5:57 to go in the period. Clark hit two straight in the paint to give Rockdale a 23-18 lead with 5:32 to go in the half.
Back-to-back dunks from Thompson and Kevin Ware gave the Bulldogs a 7-point lead with 3:08 left in the second and Rockdale's defense created a turnover the next time down. After two Ware free throws, Thompson's second dunk of the quarter gave Rockdale a 10-point lead inside of two minutes to go in the half. Rockdale limited the Tigers to eight points in the quarter and the Bulldogs led 35-24 at the half. Ware had 12 of his game-high 18 points in the first half.
"We just have a team of veterans. We played a tough schedule. One of the toughest in the state, all to prepare for this type of atmosphere," Williams said. "There's not much I can say (to them). They were ready."
Rockdale kept it rolling in the third, opening the period on a 6-1 run. Fayette County bigman Ekene Anachebe had to go to the bench with four fouls and Clark took advantage. Clark flushed home two during the run and the Bulldogs led 44-25 with 6:10 left. Fayette County responded with five straight before Clark came back with a running hook in the lane. Clark capped the third with a layup as time expired to give the Bulldogs a 56-41 lead heading into the fourth.
Ware ran into foul trouble in the third quarter, picking up his fourth with 2:46 left. Without Ware on the floor, Fayette County took advantage. Larry Erves reverse dunk cut the Bulldogs' lead to eight before Smith's three made it a 56-51 game with 6:07 trailed to play. A Clark free throw and Sunderhaus runner pushed Rockdale's lead back to eight with 4:16 left.
After a Rockdale bucket was waved off with the Bulldogs up 60-53, Maurice Williams drained a three to make it a 4-point game. Ware missed a layup the next time down and Maurice Williams made one free throw to pull Fayette County to within three. Maurice Williams went 1-of-2 from the line the next time down to make it a 2-point game with 1:36 to play.
With his team clinging to a 2-point lead, Thompson drove the lane for a bucket. After Fayette County went 1-of-2 from the free throw line, Thompson scored inside again to give the Bulldogs a 64-59 lead with 25 seconds left.
Maurice Williams drained his third three in the quarter and fourth of the game with 0.7 seconds left. Fayette County stole the inbound pass but was unable to get off a shot as time expired.
The win gives the Bulldogs a chance at redeeming what happened in 1987 when Rockdale won the Class AAA title only to have it stripped for using an ineligible player. The Bulldogs face Miller Grove Friday at 4:45 p.m.
"I have one word for the difference: leadership," Alvin Williams said. "We had a great team last year. This year, we have leadership and that's the difference."
(Mar. 9, 10:32 p.m.) The Rockdale boys' basketball team is one win away from the state championship.
The Bulldogs defeated Fayette County 66-64 in the AAAA semifinals on Wednesday and face Miller Grove on Friday.
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