COVINGTON, Ga. -- AJ Paschal hooked arms with his fellow starters and other teammates on the bench during the final seconds of Alcovy’s Region 3-AAAAAA matchup with Evans Tuesday night.
His work on the court was done. With 16 points and an assortment of timely rebounds, including many that were of the second chance offensive glass variety, he had helped the Tigers secure the bag -- that bag, in this sense, being a come from behind 69-60 senior night win.
But the gesture on the sidelines with his teammates was bigger than just that one win. It was about the moment showing a microcosm of what his team had become.
“We’ve been through a lot, man,” Paschal said. “It’s hard to explain, man. It’s really hard to explain.”
So he didn’t try. Instead, he pointed over to a gleeful mob of players, students and coaches about three feet away, jumping around in celebration after the game.
“You can see how much this means to everybody,” he added. “This is big. This is very big for all of us. This is my team. I love everybody.”
Paschal finished with 14 points for the Tigers while junior Cam Anderson paced Alcovy with a team-high 16 points, all in the first half. Kevon Simms chipped in with 11 points.
It was high drama, and even high stakes as the Tigers fought not only to go out as winners on senior night, but to stay in third place in Region 3-AAAAAA, keeping the embers burning on their state tournament aspirations and to finish for their coach, Mack Hardwick.
Hardwick received a technical foul for arguing a charging call, and then was ejected with 6:26 left in regulation. The play came after Terrel Steele tied the game at 53 for Alcovy on the first possession of the fourth quarter, erasing what had been a seven point Evans lead in the middle of the third.
After Hardwick’s ejection, Alcovy caught a break as No. 2 missed two of his four free throws and Evans scored another basket to Give it a 57-53 advantage. And that’s when Paschal and company went to work.
The senior guard got a bucket and foul, completing the 3-point play with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter. The sequence trimmed Evans’ lead to 59-58. Cameron Caberras would subsequently miss two more free throws on Evans’ next trip down the floor and Jaylan Jefferson and Paschal would each hit one of their two free throws to put Alcovy up 60-59 with 3:57 left in the game.
Alcovy’s defense got stingy, thanks in part to the Tigers employing a full court press throughout the rest of the game. It forced a turnover that put Paschal on a fast break for a layup while getting fouled. Then Jefferson scored on a put-back bucket, stretching Alcovy’s lead to 64-59 at the 2:19 mark.
The Tigers held Evans without a field goal for the last five minutes of the game, and Paschal directly attributed the uptick in his team’s intensity to the ouster of his coach.
“Our coach, he was fighting for us,” Paschal said. “And we needed to fight for him. That was the difference.”
It was pretty much a back-and-forth affair throughout, with neither team able to gain more than seven point advantage through the first three quarters.
Alcovy led 22-21 at the end of the first quarter, thanks to some timely buckets by Simms and Anderson. But they were down 35-32 at halftime, largely because the Tigers struggled to find an answer for 6-foot-8 sophomore Dylan Cardwell.
Cardwell finished with just five points, but had double-digit rebounds and several blocked shots. When he wasn’t blocking Alcovy shots, he was changing the trajectory of them and making it hard for the Tigers’ guards to penetrate the paint.
Junior guard Cameron Caberrus had a game-high 22 points for Evans which fell to 12-11 overall and 3-6 in region play. Meanwhile, Paschal and Alcovy will look to close the regular season on a streak. The Tigers will travel to Lakeside (12-10, 6-3) Friday night and then face in-county rival Eastside Saturday in the season finale before diving into the region tournament.
That, according to Paschal, is the beginning of what he hopes can be an extended season that would serve as the perfect reward for a year of ups and downs.
“We’ve come through the mud man,” he said. “We really have. And now, I just want to make it to state, and I want to go deep. I want to see us go as deep as we can.”