For three quarters, Eastside played Eastside basketball and looked poised to grab a region 8-AAAA title Friday night at Johnson High.
But the Eagles couldn't hold back a Johnson rally, and a poor night at the free throw line ultimately doomed Eastside in a 51-50 loss.
“We just got to play Eastside basketball,” Eagles coach Gregory Freeman said. “That’s how we play. We just missed some free throws down the stretch.”
Eastside (16-9) went 1 of 6 from the free throw line in the final quarter, while Johnson went 5 of 7.
Eastside senior Quindarrious Russell led all scorers with 19 points and Anthony Henderson added 14 for the Eagles, who will play the No. 3 seed from 5-AAA in the first round of the state tournament.
Johnson point guard Drew Dunham sank a pair of free throws with 16 seconds left to give the Knights their first region title since 2005.
After Eastside’s desperation 3-pointer bounced off the rim, Dunham grabbed the rebound, ran up court and was mobbed by Johnson fans after the final whistle.
The Knights (24-4) will play the No. 4 seed form Region 5-AAAA next week in the first round of the state tournament.
“They didn’t play well,” Johnson coach Jeff Steele said of his squad, which had just 28 points entering the fourth quarter. “But they refused to lose.”
Johnson senior Montrell McKenzie played a large part in the refusal. He had two points entering the fourth quarter, at which point he grabbed a rebound and recorded a putback to start a 13-2 run that took Johnson from down 35-28, to up 41-37 with 4:15 remaining in the fourth quarter, at which point the game was back and forth until the end. In all, McKenzie scored 13 of his 15 points in the final quarter to help lead the Knights to the win.
“I kept telling him, show them why you were voted player of the year,” Steele said of his lone senior. “And he took over.”
Along with McKenzie, Steele credited the defense with slowing Eastside in the second half, which enabled the Knights to get back into a game they trailed in by as many as 13 points.
It was a far different experience than the first meeting between the two teams during the regular season, when Johnson won by 20 points and never trailed.
Freeman was pleased with his team’s performance.
“We were the better team,” he said. “But we missed those free throws.”
Eastside’s Treyvon Francis hit a layup to tie the game at 49 with 1:25 left just after McKenzie’s dunk, and hit 1 of 2 free throws with 26 seconds left to put Eastside ahead 50-49, setting the stage for Dunham’s go-ahead free throws.
In addition to McKenzie’s 15 points, Roderick English and Dunham added 11 each and Ty Cockfield finished with 10.
The game came with an intense atmosphere and lived up to a region championship, featuring an Eastside team that crashed the boards with zeal all night long and a couple of clutch moments by Dunham, the Johnson point guard, who hit a layup just before the halftime buzzer and hit a contested jump shot and free throw for a traditional 3-point play during Johnson’s late run to retake the lead.
Steele told his players to use the experience of playing in the Lanierland Championship game.
“What I kept telling them was to pull from that Lanierland championship game,” he said. “It’s a combination of all their hard work. They deserve what they won.”
When the coach could finally breathe again, he could start to envision where on the gym ceiling the banner would go.
McKenzie was thinking of that banner as well.
“Every time I come back to this gym,” he said, “I can tell my kids that I helped hang that banner.”