After scoring 49 points in the second half of play, the Dawson County Tigers fell short of a fourth quarter comeback on Saturday night and lost the first-round state playoff game 72-69 to the Cedar Grove Saints.
Before the game started, energy was high in the bleachers and on the court, as fans talked about the team’s prospects farther into the tournament and players talked about the upcoming game.
Dawson County senior and co-Region Player of the Year Campbell Reed said how he knew it was important for the team to secure a home game and No. 1 seed in the 3-A Georgia High School Athletics (GHSA) state tournament.
“Playing at home means the world to us,” Reed said. “Our students always pack the place out and get rowdy. At the same time, our grandparents get to watch us from the stands. It’s great.”
Senior Tate Adkins said that he knew this would be one of the toughest games of the year for the Tigers, but was confident that they were ready for any opponent.
“We just have to play hard and come out with a win,” Adkins said. “Us seniors don’t want to be done yet.”
The Tigers started the game off hot, leading 9-2 with five minutes left in the first quarter. Senior and co-Region Player of the Year, Jasper Gibson threw his fists victoriously in the air as his 2,000th career point hit the bottom of the net and fans erupted when the announcer congratulated Gibson on a great career with the Tigers.
That was when the shots stopped falling for the Tigers. The three-point shooting tandem of Gibson, Reed and junior Mason Barnes did not see another three point shot for the rest of the quarter.
The Tigers shot a season low 27% from the three-point line the entire night.
“It was just one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in,” Head Coach Eric Herrick said after the game. “We had an off night when we couldn’t afford to have one.”
Cedar Grove took the lead and ended the first quarter up 12-11, and would not relinquish it for the rest of the night.
The second quarter was the worst quarter of the night for the Tigers. The Saints went on a 13-2 run to end the quarter and went into halftime with the score 33-20 in favor of Cedar Grove.
The electricity that once engulfed the crowd had been muted to crossed arms and tapping feet. After watching the Tigers win the region, most fans were not expecting the score to be down this much at halftime.
“Didn’t think this was (going to) be such a tough one,” senior and student section member Bailey Jennings said at halftime. “All we can do now is get as hyped up as we can for our boys.”
The Tigers stayed in the locker room for six of the 10 minutes given between halves. Coach Herrick said he spent the majority of the time reiterating what the three goals of the game were: Rebounding the basketball, not turning the ball over and transitioning defense.
The extra time in the locker room seemed to initially rally the Tigers back together and within the first two minutes of the half, they had gotten the score deficit down to seven points.
However, the Tigers could not find another offensive rhythm for the rest of the quarter and only put up three more points. The Saints were up 48-31 with only the fourth left to go.
Spectators began to trickle out after Cedar Grove got the first points of the quarter. Fans took frustrations out vocally, with one cameraman getting ejected while yelling at a referee.
Down by 14 with four minutes left in the game, the Tigers refused to give the game up as a loss.
Gibson hit a three-point shot with a defender in his face, got an offensive rebound on the Tigers next possession, got fouled on a put-back attempt and made his free throw.
On defense, he stole the ball and came back in for a layup.
Gibson wasn’t done yet, and on the Tigers next possession he found his brother, freshman Jaden Gibson wide open for the three.
In just one minute, the Gibson brothers had brought life back into Ford Phillips Center. The Tigers were only down by seven with three minutes left in the game.
The rest of the team got in on the fun. Reed made a three with a defender’s hand in his face. After the Saints responded with a basket of their own, senior Eli Burruss made both of his free throw attempts.
In the last few minutes, the noise was nearly deafening as almost every voice cheered the Tigers on.
“I felt it,” senior Riley Herndon said. “I knew we weren’t done just yet.”
After trading fouls with the Saints, the Tigers had the ball with one last offensive possession, down by three with 23 seconds left in the game. Jasper Gibson brought the ball up and drove into the basket. He missed, but Adkins was there with the offensive rebound and the put-back attempt.
Sixteen seconds remained.
Adkins, defenders all around him, went up with the ball and hit off the front of the rim.
Thirteen seconds left on the clock.
Gibson got another offensive rebound for the Tigers, put up one last shot and was swarmed by a pair of defenders. To stop the clock, Adkins fouled the Saints’ rebounder, fouling out of the game.
With tears in his eyes, Adkins stood off to the side of the bench. Fellow senior Bryson Broadway came and stood next to him, arm around his shoulder, as they watched the Saints make their two free throws and end the game.
In the fourth quarter alone, the Tigers outscored the Saints 38 points to 24 points. Jasper Gibson, leading the fourth-quarter surge, had 11 of his total 33 points with 3 assists.
The Tigers were expected to make another deep run into the tournament again this year, ranked as the third-best 3-A team, according to GHSA’s website and ranked as the 32nd best team in the state, according to MaxPreps.
“I feel worse for these guys right now than I did last year,” Dawson County graduate and former Tigers basketball player Trey Pruitt said. “You never want to lose like this at home.”
Pruitt was a part of the Tigers team that made a deep run in the state tournament last season, losing in the final four to Hart County.
However, despite the outcome of Saturday night’s matchup, Coach Herrick said he could not have been more proud of the effort the team gave out on the court all season.
“I love those guys,” Herrick said. “They’ve worked hard. They’ve responded. They’ve battled adversity. We’ve had some of the highest of highs and tonight has got to be the lowest of lows. It’s been a great year. You can’t take a region championship away from them.”
The Dawson County Tigers finished the season with a final record of 25-3, undefeated in region play with another region championship trophy in the trophy case.