Playoff basketball has returned to Dawson County.
In a closer than expected game, the Dawson County Tigers varsity boys’ basketball team pulled of a 70-63 overtime victory against the Greater Atlanta Christian (GAC) Spartans to capture the Region 7-AAA Championship for the second straight season.
At 12-0 in regional play, and 23-2 overall, the Tigers rolled into the tournament as the team to be beat, riding a regular season 12-game winning streak that dated back to mid-December 2019.
After a first-round bye, Dawson County’s fast-paced, run-and-gun style overwhelmed the Cherokee Bluff Bears on Feb. 10. Led by senior Jasper Gibson, the Tigers seemingly scored at will during the contest and took a commanding 20-point lead into the fourth period.
Despite a determined effort from the Bears, Dawson county went on to win the game by a final score of 70-62 to secure a spot in the championship game for the first time under first-year Head Coach Eric Herrick.
“The important thing this time of year is to be playing well,” Herrick said. “We are a confident team. We haven’t lost in a while.”
After a week-end snowstorm pushed the championship game to Monday, Feb. 10, the Tigers looked unaffected by the delay and immediately set about to running up the score when Dawson County tipped-off against GAC at 8:30 p.m. in the East Hall High School gymnasium known as Valhalla.
As if mirroring the ancient Viking warriors that called Valhalla home, junior Mason Barnes took to the floor like a man possessed. Forcing steals, snagging rebounds and scoring from every angle imaginable, Barnes led the Tiger on a first period romp.
When the dust settled on the first eight minutes of play, Dawson County held an 18-6 lead and looked to be well on their way to another easy victory. But this is championship basketball.
“I just wanted to go on the attack from the beginning,” Barnes said. “Get out front in transition and take care of the ball. We did that, the whole team played well in the first half.”
The Spartans, who came to the game with an impressive record of their own at 18-7 overall and 9-3 in the region, found the gaps in the Tigers’ defense and took away Dawson County’s forward attack to outscore the Tigers in the second period and narrow the lead to 30-22 by halftime.
“GAC made some huge in-game adjustments,” Herrick said. “They took away our point guard and forced our guys into making plays. Up until then we had been scoring a lot in transition and they were able to take that away from us.”
Greater Atlanta held on to the momentum in the opening minutes of the third period, continuing to pressure Dawson County and relentlessly chipping away at the lead. As the clock wound down and the tension of a close game mounted, frustration become visible on the court leading to a pair of intentional fouls that shifted the game back in the direction of the Tigers.
With slightly more than four minutes remaining in the period, Gibson was roughly shoved to the floor while driving in for a lay-up, and after a brief consultation among the referees was awarded four uncontested free-throws. Standing calmly at the line, nursing what appeared to be a bruised hand, he calmly sank all four shots and put his team back in the lead.
Barnes fell victim to the next flagrant foul when he broke free of the pack and approached the net for an easy lay-up only to find himself knocked to the floor by a Spartan defender. Again, the referees ruled it intentional and awarded Barnes a pair of shots, of which he made one, to put the lead at three.
“It’s a competitive game,” Herrick said. “The honest answer is our guys thrive in that kind of environment, Jasper just gets so fired up, it pumps up everybody on the team.”
As the teams regained control of their emotions, the stage was set for an epic final period. Dawson County held a slim lead, while GAC was on the attack. Both teams were hungry for the title of Regional Champion.
The Spartans tied the game in the opening minute of the fourth period and the two squads commenced to exchange the lead on seemingly every subsequent possession with neither team able to pull away by more than a basket.
Entering the final minute of the game, the Tigers took a three-point lead with less than 30 seconds on the clock only to see the lead erased by a called foul on GAC’s next three-point attempt that sent their best shooter to the line for an easy three shots.
The final possession of regulation ended with senior Campbell Reed firing a three-pointer in traffic that bounced off the rim just as the buzzer sounded to send the game into overtime with the teams tied at 58.
Showing the resilience possessed by all great athletes, Reed immediately gave Dawson County the lead with a beautiful jump shot on the Tiger’s first possession of the four-minute extra period.
Senior Brody Howell picked the perfect moment to shine as he teamed up with fellow senior Eli Burrus to deny the Spartans points on their following two attempts.
With 1:09 left on the clock, Dawson County took a seven-point lead and the Spartans began to foul fast and hard in an effort to gain control of the ball. Unfortunately, they fouled Barnes. Going 3-for-4 in the final 30 seconds of the game, Barnes kept the game just out of reach of GAC and, fittingly enough, the ball found its way into his hands for him to dribble off the final eight seconds to lock-down the 70-63 win.
The always raucous DCHS student section swarmed the floor to celebrate with their Tigers as Dawson County hoisted their second Region 7-AAA trophy in as many years.
Following the trophy presentation, Barnes was named to the Region 7-AAA All-Region team and, in a testament to the season put forth by the Tigers, Gibson and Reed were named the 2019-2020 regional co-players of the year.
“This is a great bunch of guys,” Herrick said. “They’re talented, level-headed and competitive. If they play well, the little things will take care of themselves.”
Dawson County enters the Georgia High School Association State Playoffs as the Region 7, No. 1 seed and will host the Region 5, No. 4 seed Cedar Grove Saints in first round action either Friday, Feb. 14 or Saturday, Feb. 15.