Eastside-Woodward Academy final seconds
COLLEGE PARK, Ga. -- In close to a decade covering sports in Georgia, it never fails that each school year gives me at least one scene that remains etched in my brain as time goes on.
There was me watching now-New Orleans Saints running back, Alvin Kamara streaking down the sideline in the old Georgia Dome, scoring a touchdown that would seal Lovejoy’s fate of being back-to-back runners up instead of state champions.
The scene of all those young men strewn across the field in tears, being held by grown men coaches, also with wet faces, is an addendum to that moment.
Then there was watching the jubilation of the Eagles Landing boys basketball team after winning the 2012-13 Class AAAA state championship, with a young man named Eric Wortham at the center of that squad, hoisting championship hardware just weeks after almost losing his life during a medical emergency in the school’s cafeteria.
I won’t soon forget other moments like the outpouring of support for former Eagle’s Landing football coach Joe Teknipp after he succumbed to cancer or how the Eastside Eagles rallied around Michael Hipps and family, and then Covington Police Department officer Matt Cooper and family.
And many others. But now I can add Monday afternoon at North Clayton to that list.
After the Eastside girls lost its first round Region 4-AAAA tournament game to Woodward Academy — and, by result, an opportunity at its first state tournament berth in five years — on one of the most egregious blown calls I’ve ever witnessed, I found the postgame locker room scene and, at first, could only manage to get a glimpse at what was going on.
Coach Gladys King and others were standing in front of the girls. King was addressing her team. I don’t know what she said to them, but I know that as soon as she started stepping away, silent sniffles gave way to loud sobs, and I could see a cluster of girls embracing each other while they wept.
Then came the coaches. King and one of her assistants, Trenesa Cosby. They both rushed down the short flight of steps that led to the locker room, and let it all out.
Cosby leaned face-first against the wall and let her emotions go. King retreated to a corner and did the same. It’s one thing when you see the kids cry. You expect that. But when the adults — the coaches — can’t contain those emotions, you get an understanding of just how much heart and effort and energy and love goes into guiding a team of youth through the various ups and downs of a season.
It’s bigger than just sports. And for King and company, you could see that although that specific moment was about that game, those tears and emotions were coming from an even deeper place.
It came from a place of knowing that this should’ve been the team. This was the group of young ladies that King had been banking on to break that state tournament drought. To finally break free from the dungeon of Region 4-AAAA.
This team had scorers, ball handlers, defenders, hustlers, but more than anything, they had heart.
They had an unflappable freshman point guard in Lizzie Teasley who played above and beyond her age all season long.
They had the emergence of Alysee Dobbs, one of the hardest working basketball players I’ve seen in a while. They had the scrappyness of Jamiyra Smith. The court savvy of T’Niah Douglas. The versatility of Dasia Burgess and others who may not have been as well known, but knew well how to play their role on this team.
King will readily admit that there are other teams that could “out-athlete” them and “out personnel” them, for various reasons, but few could outwork them.
“Sometimes you have people that don’t always play the game fairly,” King said. “I have girls that are home grown from day one. Nobody’s transferred in. Those ladies worked their butts off and fought their hearts out all season long. They are girls who’ve climbed and always had to fight against other opponents because we’ve always been the underdog. And tonight, for them to work so hard in this season and in that game and get sucker punched like that, it’s sickening. Just sickening.”
And that’s why Monday hurt so bad.
Eastside worked to build a 10-point lead early in third quarter, and at that point you felt good about its chances of finally extending their season beyond region tournament play.
But Woodward Academy had super freshman Sydney Bowles. And when you have that kind of player — one that could singlehandedly take a game over, you knew Woodward would make a run. And it did, with Bowles putting the team on her young back. She scored 38 points and proved why she’s one of the state’s top young talents.
But it was her last two points that truly plunged the dagger into Eastside’s hearts. Not because of the points themselves, but because the opportunity for her to score those points should’ve never happened.
To be sure, this isn’t me bashing Bowles or any of the young athletes on that court from either team. Both sides played hard and played well. This is only about the ridiculous officiating that put both squads and their coaches and fans in a weird position.
After Teasley knocked down a pair of free throws that tied the game with three seconds left in regulation, Eastside only needed to keep Woodward from driving the length of the court for a score in order to force overtime.
And it appeared Eastside did that. Of course Woodward got the ball to Bowles and she began to dribble toward her goal. As she jumped to put up a shot, the ball was still in her hands as the buzzer sounded. However, an official not only decided that she got the ball off, but that she was fouled in the process and would go to the line to shoot free throws after 0.3 seconds miraculously appeared back on the clock.
Woodward’s fan contingent obviously celebrated the call. Perhaps they were thinking that even if it was a bad call, it was a make-up for some other bad calls (or no-calls) throughout the game — and there were plenty on both sides.
But Eastside’s folks lost it, as you could probably imagine. And when you go back to see the video and take it frame by frame, you can see why.
Of the three things to evaluate on that final and fateful play — was there a foul, was there a legit shot attempt and did the shot get off on time — the only thing that seemed iffy was whether or not Smith truly fouled Bowels. The referee who made the call said Bowels was smacked in the head. But our video that shows the game’s final moments doesn’t show conclusive evidence toward that fact.
But here’s the kicker: Because the shot and alleged foul on the shot happened after the buzzer, it should’ve been a moot point.
The ball was clearly still in Bowels’ hands when the buzzer sounded to signal the end of the quarter. Not only that, the official blew his whistle maybe two seconds after the fourth quarter buzzer. I don’t care what you say or whose team it is, that’s not a call you rush to make in the deciding moments of a postseason game.
“The refs took one from us tonight,” King said afterward. And how.
Now, cue the most popular pushback we offer up when someone places the blame of a loss on an official: If the team takes care of business before that, it wouldn’t have had to come down to that call.
Well, maybe. But again, Woodward worked their way back into that game in legit fashion. They have the kind of player who can make that happen. It should be expected for them to make a run.
What can’t be excused, no matter the situation, is botching that kind of a call in that kind of a game. There’s no explanation sound enough to sweep that one under the rug.
Yes, officials are human and will make mistakes. And yes, it’s easier for us to revel in the benefit of video hindsight which is different than trying to make a decision in the moment of a bang-bang play.
But this crew was bad all night. No whistles, slow whistles sometimes several seconds after the play had finished, quick whistles anticipating calls that were never really there. Failure to see obvious traveling and palming violations. It was terrible. And with as much training as the GHSA says our officials in Georgia get, basketball teams, coaches and, yes, fans deserve better.
Arguing about having instant replay in high school sports is not even worth the energy. It likely won’t happen anytime soon in a widespread fashion, especially with regular season games. But we have to figure out a way to create more in-game accountability with officials in high-stakes games.
You blow this call in a preseason scrimmage or in one of those non-region showcase games during the holidays, and it’s no big deal.
But with region tournament advancement on the line and a state tournament berth at stake, there just has to be something that can be done to provide extra layers of accountability and correction of egregious human error for those moments, especially.
I caught that video of the final sequence of plays on my iPhone while sitting two rows up from the scorers table. Could there not be some sort of tablet camera or phone camera positioned somewhere nearby, specifically to catch those moments in playoff or state tournament atmospheres?
Most teams have an iPad or tablet set up anyway to record games. Could we not utilize some sort of playback ability with technology that’s already readily available? If such a video proves to be inconclusive, fine. At least an attempt or an effort was made to get a crucial call right in a high stakes situation.
I’m sure there are plenty of folks ready to poke holes in that argument, and I can already guess what some of those holes would be.
But we already know that no system is perfect. And teams who get shafted in such moments deserve more than just an after-the-fact, “my bad.”
I don’t know if anyone associated with Lady Eagles basketball got much sleep Monday night. But I do know this: I believe once the hurt passes and the sting subsides, this will make this Eastside bunch even hungrier and a bit more dangerous come next season.
With only three seniors graduating and virtually the entire nucleus of that team returning next year, I have a feeling it will take more than a string of bad calls to keep this program away from the state tournament next year.
And that’s the beautiful conundrum of the sports world, and really just life in general. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a situation where a team suffered such a heartbreak and allowed it to serve as the impetus to push them to next-level stuff in the following season.
Knowing the grittiness of this team like I do, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen. After all, Eastside came close last year as well, losing 45-41, again to Woodward Academy in the first round of this same region tournament, thought not by the same controversial means as this year’s game.
But the improvement seen this year was a direct reflection of the hard work put in during that offseason. That desire to work hard was fueled by disappointment.
Here’s to hoping we figure out a way to limit the frequency of some of these calls. Just because “it’s gonna happen no matter what system you use” is factual rationale, it shouldn’t lend itself to being a scapegoat reason to avoid doing better.
I believe at some point, as the rise of popularity in major high school sports inches its way toward being more mainstream, we’ll look up and see methods of instant replay becoming commonplace. And when it happens, we’ll point to numerous examples identical to what happened at North Clayton Monday evening as to why it became necessary.
I say, why wait? Let’s start making moves in that direction now. No one should be cheated out of potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunities — even at the high school level — by moments of human error that can, indeed, be corrected.
But until then, I only hope that Eastside’s returning players and coaches can harness that energy of disappointment and leave no doubt for the 2019-20 season.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. You can reach him for story tips or ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1.