Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

MILLEDGEVILLE -- Wouldn't you know it? The kid who had been there the longest -- the one who had suffered the most, the one who had his dream broken so many times in so many different ways -- was the one who had to win it.

And Deerfield-Windsor wouldn't have had it any other way.

No sweat. No worries. Not with Michael Matthews at the free throw line. Not with the game, the season and four years of waiting hanging in the balance.

"Hey, it was Michael,'' said teammate Jordan Alexander, a senior who has played for four years with Matthews. "I knew he would knock them down.''

Reggie Brown, another DWS senior, put it this way. "I was happy to see him on the free throw line. I wasn't worried. I knew they were good.''

Good enough.

That's what Matthews and the Knights were Thursday night -- just good enough, and when it counted the most to beat George Walton, 63-61, in the GISA Class AAA state semifinals at Georgia College & State University.

Don't let the final fool you. Matthews put the game away with a pair of free throws with 11 seconds left, lifting DWS to a 63-59 lead before Walton hit a desperation shot at the buzzer to make it a two-point final.

And by then, most of DWS was already storming the court.

"It's what you would expect from an All-State player,'' DSW coach Gordy Gruhl said of Matthews, who has been the point guard for DWS for three years.

Matthews finished the game with 20 points, and eight of those came in the fourth quarter -- five in the final 1:33 when DWS was hanging on for its life. Matthews hit three big free throws in the final 16 seconds -- one for each year he's played for the state championship.

It's his third trip to the title game as a starter -- the third in a row for these DWS seniors, who have shed more tears in Milledgeville than anyone wants to remember.

But not now. Now its all about joy and redemption, about taking that final step and -- like the T-shirts at DWS say, "Let's get it done.''

"We're so determined,'' Matthews said. "We're just so hungry to get the state title.''

They can't wait for the final at 8:30 Saturday night against the winner of Thursday's other semifinal, Tattanall Square, which Mount Vernon in the final seconds.

Not these kids.

"It's going to seem like years until then,'' junior Banks Kinslow said. "I want to play right now if my body would let me.''

It wouldn't.

You want a snapshot of how much these Deerfield kids want to win it all, just take a look at Kinslow late in the third quarter when he was knocked off his feet and into the seats -- just after he had lifted a long 3-pointer.

"I didn't even see it go in,'' Kinslow said. "I said, 'Did I make it?' "

He did make it -- that one and four more 3s to finish with 19 points. Matthews also busted three 3's as the pair of guards torched Walton all night.

"When those two are hot, no one can stay with us,'' said Brown, who scored nine points and pulled down 11 rebounds.

Walton couldn't stay with the Knights (27-1), who held the Bulldogs to just 4 of 20 shooting in the second quarter and led 33-28 at halftime. Kinslow and Matthews opened the second half by each hitting a 3 and the Knights were off and running with Kinslow (9 points on three 3s in the third) leading the way.

DWS built the lead to 13 (52-39) and was still up by 10 at the end of three. And even after a valiant Walton run, the Knights still looked in control with a 59-50 lead with 1:33 left. That's when the Bulldogs made their move -- a 9-1 run that closed the score to 60-59 with back-to-back 3s with 16 seconds left.

"I had that sick feeling in my stomach every coach gets when a team cuts it from 10 to one in the final seconds,'' Gruhl.

Gruhl then smiled, likely thinking of the finish.

That's when Matthews put the game away with those get-me-back-to-the-title-game free throws.

"We survived,'' Gruhl said. "We couldn't slow them down, and they hit some big shots, but then we put it away at the end."

That's when Matthews, the ageless senior, picked up the Knights and dropped them back in the state title game.

"We're right back where we were last year,'' said Alexander, a two-year starter. "We've got to finish it this year.''

Matthews, meanwhile, got the final word Thursday night.

"We're not done yet,'' he said. "The one we want is Saturday.''