Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

ALBANY -- Gary Holloway threw the ball toward the heavens.

And when it fell back to earth, four years of frustration landed with it.

Then came the dancing, the hugging, the shouting -- and the sheer joy that always accompanies the end of a long wait, always walking hand-and-hand with patience.

All of that and more -- the game, the night and this magical season -- belonged to the Sherwood Christian Academy's boys basketball team that tossed away all they had lost before and celebrated like there was no tomorrow after beating Tiftarea Academy 69-58 on Saturday night for their first Region 3-AA title in years.

No one wanted to leave the Darton College court. The Sherwood kids just wanted to hold onto to this one. They had waited their entire careers to win this game.

And as the clocked ticked down and Holloway threw the ball in the air, joy washed over the court.

"I couldn't believe it,'' said Wesley Pittman, one of seven seniors who had suffered through the long days at Sherwood. "It feels so good. I never expected this to happen. I expected to have a disappointing career. Two years ago I never would have believed this would happen.''

Those seven know all about waiting. The Eagles won just seven games over a two-year stretch, before Matt Ruta showed up last year and turned the program around. Still, they hadn't tasted a region title until Saturday.

"When coach Ruta came everything changed,'' Pittman said. "He taught us how to play real basketball.''

Well, the Eagles played real good basketball on Saturday.

And none was better than Pittman, who was there every time SCA needed him. He poured in 25 of his 27 points during the first three quarters, including a 10-point third quarter that lifted SCA to a 52-43 edge. After that, Tiftarea was never closer than six points.

"He can shoot it,'' Ruta said of Pittman, who made five 3s, including a couple of long range bombs that seemed to take the heart out of Tiftarea. "He was on fire tonight.''

So was Sherwood at the beginning of the game. Pittman hit the first shot of the night -- a long 3 with a message at the end of it, and the Eagles made 11 of their first 14 shots to rip off a 22-9 lead. They were up 24-13 after eight minutes. Pittman had 10 of those points, and SCA never trailed.

But Tiftarea (11-15) wouldn't go away, thanks to Wes Carter, a point guard who did everything he could to ruin SCA's night. Carter finished the night with 22 points, five rebounds a couple of steals and a blocked shot. He scored 15 points in the first half and when he tipped in a missed shot at the halftime buzzer, suddenly SCA's lead was only 34-33. .

Then came Pittman's 10-point third quarter and a rush from the other Eagles. Holloway scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in the third, and finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. Senior Brannan Anthony finished with eight points, hitting back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter to lift SCA to a 58-49 lead, before putting Tiftarea away with a slick assist to Patrick Stanford that gave SCA a 64-54 lead with 1:35 left in the game.

"I was so happy when we won it, I didn't even have words for it,'' Anthony said.

Pittman, Anthony, Holloway, and seniors John Schramm and Pete McSwain were named to the all-tournament team.

SCA had to find a way to win it in the end, because Tiftarea beat SCA on the boards and had second and third shots all night. But the Panthers couldn't find the bottom of the net, making only 11 of 36 shots in the second half. Pittman and Anthony made seven shots between them in the second half for SCA.

"We were on fire to start the game'' Ruta said. "But give Tiftarea all the credit. They battled back. But I was real proud of our kids for staying with it. We could have let the momentum let the game get away from us.''

SCA led 52-43 after three quarters then opened the fourth by making its first four shots. Ruta was asked what he told his kids before the fourth quarter.

"I don't remember,'' he answered honestly.

At that point it was hard to think. The celebration was growing on the court, and Ruta was in the middle of it -- just like he has been in the middle of the turnaround. His kids have won 39 games over the past two seasons, including a 19-6 record this year, and a 10-0 record in the Region 3-AA.

But even in the midst of the jubilation, the SCA kids remembered -- remembered just what it took to get here.

"It was really frustrating,'' Pittman said. "You had the mindset you were going to lose. Nobody came to the games, and everybody at school expected us to lose.''

But look at them now. They drew a large raucous crowd , including their own Sherwood Crazies -- a student body section that whooped and screamed and held the Ruta-on-a-stick fans all night.

"It feels great,'' Pittman said. "We just want to keep the ride going -- to the Final Four and maybe beyond that.''

Why not?

Just have a little patience...

SCA GIRLS 48, SGA 31: The SCA girls (10-13) won the consolation game Saturday, beating Southwest Georgia Academy in the paint to take home third place in GISA Region 3-AA.

The Lady Eagles were led by Kaylee Dixon, who went inside for a game-high 18 points.

"She did a really good job under the basket for us, SCA coach Rebecca Fyock said. "She scored for us really well under the basket and made some open shots. We were patient offensively and we think that helped. We also took care of the ball, and we didn't in the last game."

Fyock added: "The girls played really hard. Defensively, we pressed the whole game with our man-to-man defense and did a good job with steals.''

SCA also had solid games from Megan Barker (seven points) and Princess Williams (five points).

Kyndal Andrews led SGA with 12 points and Morgan Hilton added eight.

VALWOOD BOYS 62, SGA 47: Valwood got a big game from Nehemiah Banks, who led the Valiants with 24 points and beat Southwest Georgia Academy in the consolation game. SGA was led by Parker Adams (16 points), Danny Doster (15 points) and Andrew Stone (10 points).