Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Take a deep breath Monroe, you did it.

You walked into Westover's legendary Boston Garden and won the game everyone said you couldn't win, and even tasted that oh-so-sweet cake Brandon Johnson had promised.

"Yeah, that cake tastes sweet,'' said Johnson after Monroe, The Herald's No. 1 ranked team, held back No. 2 Westover, 61-58, in a game most of Albany has been talking about for weeks.

"We might have to bake another one.''

They will.

Monroe will be at home next month against Westover, and the two will likely meet in the Region 1-AAA final later down the road, so each one of these matchups will take on a personality all its own.

This one -- albeit sweet for Monroe -- left everyone wondering because Westover played without Super 6er Onochie Ochie, who took a hard fall early in the game and had to be carried off the court. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, but after the game Westover coach Dallis Smith said Ochie was "OK.''

Even without Ochie, Westover (11-1), which never led, gave Monroe (11-0) a night to remember.

"We were already shorter than they were, and losing Ochie was a big blow to us,'' Smith said. "I thought it affected the kids. They had to look at him on the floor and it was hard to get them refocused.

"But we were down by two at halftime (24-22), and we had our chances to win. If we made half the shots we missed, we would have won.''

When Ochie lay on the floor, all the air seemed to leave a gym that only seconds earlier had felt like Mardi Gras on New year's Eve. The electric atmosphere was replaced by a sense of worry, and it was difficult for both teams to find the intensity that had been building up for weeks for this showdown.

"Any time you see a kid go down like that it affects you. It scared me,'' Monroe coach Marquis Davis said. "I'm just hoping and praying he's OK.''

The rivalry is always the biggest game of the year, but this year's showdown brought even more to the mix, because both teams were undefeated, and because Monroe -- not Westover -- was on top. The result was the gym was full at 6 p.m. -- an hour before the girls' tip-off.

The game was anything but the "piece of cake" Johnson had said it would be, but his teamamtes lived up to his pre-game bravado and even Davis said the victory was "sweet.''

In the end, it was another classic Monroe-Westover ending, only this time the up-and-coming Tornadoes -- the team everyone was doubting -- stormed the court in celebration.

"This feels so sweet to beat them -- so, so, soooooo sweet,'' said Rontavious Gilbert, a sophomore who grew up mightily in the fourth quarter when he swatted away back-to-back shots to hold off Westover with 1:03 left in the game and with Monroe hanging on to a 57-53 lead.

"I've been waiting since middle school to beat them,'' added Gilbert, who finished with six points and four blocks.

Still, Westover, which was led by Chris Wheeler (12 points) and Shevren Keaton (12 points), just kept coming and closed the gap to 58-57 with 25 seconds left on a drive by Kino Miller.

But then Westover found out what just about every team that plays Monroe already knows: You can't foul Robert Arnold down the stretch.

"I'm Mr. Clutch,'' said Arnold, who had already beaten Albany High and Dougherty High with last-second free throws earlier this season.

Now add Westover to Arnold's hit list.

He buried a free throw with 9.4 seconds left, then had a rare miss, to leave the score at 59-57, but Miller, who grabbed the rebound, couldn't convert either, making only one of two free throws with 8.7 seconds left to leave the score at 59-58. Arnold grabbed the rebound on Miller's missed free throw, and was fouled immediately. He promptly put the game away, dropping in a 60-58 and 61-58 lead with 7.6 seconds left.

"They played well without (Ochie), so give them credit,'' Arnold said. "But this is big for us and for the Monroe fans. Maybe now people will stop talking about how we haven't played anybody.''

It wasn't just his clutch free throws. Once Ochie left the game (5:27 left in the first quarter), Westover simply had no answer for Arnold, a Super 6er who played like one, scoring 24 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, blocking four shots and tossing in a half dozen assists.

"He played like a senior should play,'' Davis said. "As a coach I'm not impressed. That's what he's supposed to do.''

And Monroe did what many thought it couldn't do.

"That's why this game means so much to us,'' Davis said. "We're still No. 1 in Southwest Georgia. This will kind of quiet the critics, the ones who said we hadn't played anybody. But to come into Westover and get a win means a lot. You don't get many.''