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State championship or bust -- Part 2

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

BAINBRIDGE -- What happens when blue collar kids work as hard as the Bainbridge Bearcats?

Their collars turn purple.

That statement says as much about the purple-clad Bearcats as any you can make. They have simply worked their way all the way to the GHSA Class AAAA Final Four, where they meet Mays at 5:30 p.m. today at Gwinnett Arena.

There are flashier teams and more flamboyant teams, but Bainbridge will take an old-fashioned work ethic on the court today.

It's the only way these kids know how to play.

"That's the hardest working team I've ever seen at Bainbridge,'' said the girls coach Latreisha Moon, who is the Bearcats' biggest fan now that her team has been eliminated. "They play harder for him (coach Rickey McCullough) than any team I've seen at Bainbridge.''

How else do you explain a team -- one that wasn't even supposed to win the region -- ripping off a 20-game winning streak and rolling into Atlanta with the confidence to win it all?

"We believe in each other, and lean on each other,'' said Devon Baulkmon, a 6-foot-2 junior who has emerged as a star, averaging 21 points and 10 rebounds.

Baulkmon then added: "We push each other, and we've gotten better (as the season has wore on). We try to work harder than any other team, and do all the small things. I think that's why we are ready to win state.''

Bainbridge made it to the Final Four a year ago, but seven seniors graduated, including the entire starting five, and no one thought this team would get back to Atlanta.

"We knew they would be pretty good, but I never dreamed of this,'' McCullough said. "This team is totally different. Last year's team was smooth, and could score points easy. With this bunch, it's not pretty to watch at times but they refuse to lose.''

They're collars aren't just blue, they're black-and-blue collars.

"The best illustration of what this team is about happened last summer,'' McCullough said. "We had four football players and they spent the morning in the weight room, then we went to Cairo for our first tournament and we played four games. DeVario Thomas took nine charges, and from that point on that's the way this team plays. They work hard, play defense, dive for the ball.''

Unfortunately, Thomas, who was the sixth man a year ago and would have brought back the most experience to the Final Four, has missed the entire state tournament run with a broken wrist -- and he got it diving for a ball in practice.

That alone should have knocked out Bainbridge, which played the first two games without point guard Rohan Gaines, who is just back from an ankle injury.

"They have stepped up, and everyone is picking up the slack since I've been out,'' Thomas said. "I think they can win it, because all of them are playing together. I think we're going to make it. Everybody is chipping in, and playing so hard on defense."

Thomas then added: "Last year's team relied on scoring. This year's team relies on each other, and they play better together. Everybody plays defense and they out-hustle the other team.''

There is a confidence that comes with relying on each other, and Bainbridge has won its last two games with big fourth quarters, including a 56-53 comeback against Glenn Hills last week.

"We know anyone can win the game for us,'' senior Justin Harris said. "Whatever has happened we have played through it. When we were down (against Glenn Hills) we were talking to each other, pushing each other. There's no negative

talking on this team. We're all together.''

The Bearcats (27-4), who haven't lost since December, will need to grab every loose ball against a talented Mays (21-4) team that features Alloys Cabell, a four-year starter at guard who averages 24.5 points a game, 6-foot-6 Colin Cook and point guard Arya Strong.

"They've got two very good guards and a great shot blocker in Cook,'' said McCullough, whose tallest player is 6-2. "Cabell is a great shooter and Strong reminds me of (Terel Hall) from Terrell County. He's a real good ball handler and passes out a lot of assists.''

Bainbridge brings back about six minutes of Final Four experience. McCullough said Baulkmon and Harris each played about three minutes last year. But he's not too worried.

"I don't think they feel the pressure,'' McCullough said. "They're just playing. They're just going to Atlanta to play another game. I tell them to enjoy it and have fun. They're going to be nervous, but the other team is going to be nervous, too. I'm 58 years old, and I'll be nervous. I'm going to tell them to play like there is no tomorrow, because there's not.''