GWINNETT -- It was a gallant run that featured 20 consecutive wins, but Bainbridge's quest for a state championship came to a heartbreaking end Wednesday afternoon in Atlanta.
Playing a talented Mays team from Atlanta in the semifinals of the GHSA Class AAAA boys Final Four, the Bearcats fought back from a nine-point deficit in the second half before losing, 50-46, at Gwinnett Arena.
It was the first loss since December for a small but quick and tenacious Bainbridge team that finished the season with a 27-5 record. It was also the second year in a row that coach Rickey McCullough's program lost a semifinal contest to an Atlanta-area team.
"This one really hurts," said McCullough, who has coached prep basketball for 35 years -- four at Bainbridge -- but will have to wait at least one more for his first state title. "Our guys fought hard and I am so proud of them. This is the way our team played all year."
The game pivoted on a close call by the officials in the last minute with the score tied at 46-46. Mays senior guard and team leader Alloys Cabell drove hard to the bucket and Bainbridge's Rohan Gaines was called with a blocking foul. It was a play that could have been called either way as it appeared Gaines had established position.
The experienced Cabell made both free throws to give the Raiders a two-point lead. Bainbridge came back down the court and junior forward Devon Baulkmon missed a 10-foot jump shot that Mays rebounded.
Mays' point guard Arya Strong then took the outlet pass and was quickly fouled. He also made both free throws and the Raiders grabbed a four-point lead with 24 seconds left. Bainbridge then missed another field goal attempt, Mays got the rebound and the win was sealed.
Until the ill-fated final minute, Bainbridge again showed grit in coming back in the second half. Mays took advantage of a technical foul against McCullough with 3:51 left in the third quarter when Strong made four consecutive free throws, two from a bonus foul situation and two from the technical. That turned a one-point Mays lead into a five-point cushion, 30-25. Mays extended that lead to nine, 34-25, with 1:39 left in the third.
That's when the Bearcats put their heads down and went to work. Bainbridge's Gaines, who played lock-down defense all game, got a bucket just before the buzzer in the third quarter to narrow Mays' lead to seven.
Bainbridge's comeback in the final period was sparked Baulkmon, its dependable scoring machine. The 6-foo-2 junior forward showed his leaping ability with two tip-in buckets and then rained a couple 3-pointers, the second from way out. With that basket, the game was suddenly tied, 42-42, with just over three minutes to play. It was the 11th time the score was tied in a fiercely fought contest.
Before Baulkmon's offensive spurt, Bainbridge got a free throw and a bucket from senior forward Justin Harris. His offense was a result of turnovers caused by a full-court press that McCullough implemented in the fourth period.
Before the press, when Mays was up by nine, the Raiders went into a deliberate, slow-down offense that forced Bainbridge out of its zone defense.
The first half was riveting from the beginning and featured four lead changes and eight tied scores before both teams went to intermission deadlocked at 20-20.
Bainbridge got off to a good start by taking the opening tip and Baulkmon banked a short jump shot off the glass for the first lead of the game, 2-0. Baulkmon picked up a second foul early in the second quarter and rested until the second half to assure he did not get into serious foul trouble.
With Baulkmon out of the game, sophomore Rodney Glenn picked up his game on the inside as Bainbridge countered a Mays height advantage. The 6-1 sophomore scored six points in the first half and came up with several key rebounds.
"That has been one of the great things about this team," McCullough said. "We have spread the ball around because someone always steps up."
Baulkmon's absence was also neutralized later in the second period when Mays' big man, 6-6 Colin Cook, took a blow to his face and left the game until the second half.
Ultimatekly, a determining factor was the free throw line as Mays excelled and Bainbridge seemed to struggle. Mays also got to the foul line more often as the Raiders converted 20 of 23 free throws, while Bainbridge could only sink 8 of 18 attempts.
Baulkmon led all scorers with 23 points while Harris chipped in 12 and Glenn finished with eight.
After the game, Baulkmon could only whisper how much the loss hurt. He was not alone in that sentiment. He spoke for the entire team.