Billed as one of the best match-ups of the year, Dawson County High School tipped-off against Denmark High School in the last non-region basketball game of the 2019-2020 season on Friday, Jan. 17 at the Ford Phillips Arena.
The Tigers came into the contest riding an eight-game winning streak ranked No. 2 overall in AAA basketball while the Danes entered the game on the crest of a five-game streak at No. 6 in AAAA ball.
Both teams arrived in the Ford Phillips Center undefeated in their respective regions.
In front of a loud, sometimes unruly student section clad in duck-hunter's camouflage the battle between the Danes and the Tigers exceeded all expectations as the two teams fought for victory through all 32 minutes of regulation and three overtime periods before Dawson County pulled out the victory by a final score of 84-82.
From the opening buzzer it was obvious that both teams had come with a passion to win as the game quickly turned physical and the one-on-one match-ups underneath the net began to resemble more of a boxing match than a basketball game.
A seemingly collective decision from the officiating crew to allow a substantial level of contact had both coaches, Eric Herrick of the Tigers and the Danes’ Tyler Whitlock, lecturing the officials and pacing the floor in apparent frustration.
On the court itself, the players seemed to relish the lack of calls and both squads took advantage of the situation with a strong, attacking style of offense that led to numerous transitions and shots on net. The game stayed close, separated by no more than a basket, as the lead flipped from one side to the other with each possession.
After eight minutes of punishing ball the first period ended with a Denmark buzzer beater, which not only gave the Danes an 18-16 lead, but was also eerily predictive of how the remainder of the game unfolded.
The second period was a continuation of the first, with both teams maintaining a punishing style of play and challenging every shot. Still, as evenly matched as they were, neither team could pull away nor could they maintain any semblance of momentum.
As the period continued, visible frustration began to show on the court as the no-calls from the referees mounted and Coach Herrick called a time-out to address his players.
“I basically told them to let me deal with the refs,” Herrick said. “Only worry about the things that we can control and to leave the rest alone and play through it.”
The last few minutes before half-time saw the pace of the game increase as both teams looked for points before the break, the Danes to extend the lead and the Tigers to close the gap. The period ended with another last second shot, this time from Dawson County, and the team’s hit the locker room separated by three as Denmark continued to lead 31-28.
The teams returned to the game after a longer than usual break due to the announcement of Dawsonville’s 2020 spring homecoming court and the extended rest appeared to benefit the Danes as they opened the biggest lead of the night with a 9-0 run to open the third period.
Dawson County fought back with a flurry of points, but Denmark had finally found the elusive momentum of the game and they extended their lead through another tumultuous eight minutes of play.
Again, a series of questionable calls and even more questionable no-calls allowed the game to move at a breakneck speed, but now the crowd, led by the DCHS student section was not shy about raining down cat-calls and chants at every perceived slight from the officials.
Seemingly energized by the now overzealous crowd, the Tigers mounted a minor rally at the end of the period but still found themselves trailing 52-39 as the final stanza was set to open.
Feeding on the energy in the arena, senior Campbell Reed took matters into his own hands, tearing off a personal 10-0 run against the Danes to open the fourth period, rallying the Tigers and delighting the crowd. Every roar of the fans openly lifted the Tigers while, equally as openly, deflating the Danes.
Following Reed’s explosiveness, with exactly four minutes left in the game, junior Mason Barnes found the net for three and tied the game at 52. Suddenly, the teams were right back to even and the intensity of the moment was almost overwhelming.
Much like the first minutes of the game, the teams thundered up and down the floor trading baskets and the lead flipped between the two as the clock wound down. With 30 seconds left the Danes, on a rare pair of free throws, turned a one-point lead into a three-point lead and suddenly the Tigers’ winning streak was once again on the line.
Using every second remaining to find the perfect opening, the Tigers put the ball in the hands of senior Jasper Gibson and from deep in the corner he let go of the ball just as time expired. In an almost perfect arc, the ball found the net for three and, to crowd’s raucous delight, the teams prepared for overtime tied at 62.
As was to be expected by this point of the night, the four-minute overtime was a fast-paced, physical battle between the two units as they looked for an edge, any edge, to victory. And then, with a mere half-second on the clock and the score tied at 70, the Tigers were the beneficiary of a shooting foul and Gibson stepped to the line needing to make only one shot to secure the come-from-behind win.
You could have heard a pin drop as he stepped to the line and missed both shots to leave the game deadlocked and force a second overtime.
“It’s a tough situation,” Herrick said. “I just reminded him that his shot at the end of the game was the reason we were there in the first place and that there is no one else I would rather have at the free-throw line.”
“You hear about these situations all the time,” Gibson said. “It’s definitely different when it happens to you, but all you can do is move on and think about the next play.”
During the second overtime, both teams changed strategies as they poked and prodded the defense in an effort to find quality shooting lanes. It was suddenly a slower more methodical game, and each team held the ball for as long as possible before taking their shot and the game remained tied through most of the extra period.
And then, with twenty seconds remaining, an opportune steal by senior Eli Burruss, who dished it to a wide-open Gibson under the net for two, gave the Tigers a two-point lead, and it finally looked like the slug-fest would come to an end.
Instead, a fast transition, and a punishing drive from Danes’ sophomore Robert Cowherd resulted in two points for Denmark as the clock hit zeros and, for the third time, the two teams prepared to tip off an overtime period. This time tied at 76.
Now, it was endurance that began to rear its ugly head, as the players began to look worn down from almost an hour of tough, physical activity. Once again, the team’s prodded each other in meticulous fashion, looking for the perfect shot and, once again, the score remained tied for most of the period.
Until Gibson, with a pair of three-point shots from closer to mid-court than the basket, opened a four-point lead for the Tigers with slightly less than two-minutes to play.
Denmark scored a quick two points in transition, but the Tigers got the ball back and methodically moved down the court. Using as much time as possible, Dawson County looked to put the game away with roughly 20 seconds left, but the shot fell short and the Danes got used the opportunity to tie the game yet again.
At 12.9 seconds, coach Herrick called time out to discuss the final moments with his team. On the subsequent in-bound play, the shot wasn’t there and he used another time out to preserve the last eight seconds.
This time, as the ball was put into play, Burruss broke free under the net and muscled his way up and over two defenders to tap the ball off the glass and into the net as time expired to, finally, give the Tigers their victory by the final score of 84-82.
In a scene reminiscent of the Tiger’s home playoff victories during the previous season, the student section poured onto the floor to celebrate and, for a few moments, pandemonium was the norm in Ford Phillips Center.
The hard-fought victory extended the Tigers winning streak to nine games, the longest of the season pushed their overall record to 19-2. The team prepared for a grueling four game stretch of regional games to close out the regular season starting with a trip to North Hall High School to face the Trojans on Jan. 21. Results were unavailable as of press time.