MACON -- It didn't take Westover long to pack up and leave the Macon Coliseum Friday night.
The Patriots had already left everything they had on the court.
That's the way Westover's season ended, in an all-or-nothing-at-all, 65-58 loss to Columbia in the GHSA Class AAA state semifinals.
"They fought hard and they fought to the end,'' Westover coach Dallis Smith said.
In the end, that wasn't enough against a taller, physical nationally ranked team from Columbia, which might just be the best team in Georgia, regardless of class.
The Eagles (27-5) didn't lose a game in the Peach State all season, and earned a national ranking from both ESPN and USA Today by traveling from Hawaii to Myrtle Beach, to Illinois and West Virginia and playing some of the best teams in the nation.
"Westover would rank right up there with any team we played this year,'' Columbia coach Phillip McCrary said. "Westover plays from the heart. There's nothing fancy about them. They're like those rock'em-sock'em robots. They just keep coming and coming at you and never stop.''
McCrary, whose team is in its fifth consecutive Final Four, respects the Westover tradition, which was kept alive this season by making it to its 12th Final Four.
"Coach Smith does a great job,'' McCrary said. "He came up under Willie Boston, and learned to play that way. They come at you with non-stop pressure. Some teams will pressure you, then stop for a while and pressure you again. Not Westover. They don't stop. We're fortunate enough to win the game.''
It was a brutal loss for the seniors, who also fell in the title game a year ago.
"This hurts more,'' said Onochie Ochie, who finished with 12 points, six rebounds and four blocks. "Because you know you are never going to put on this uniform again.''
Chris Wheeler was silent for a while, then finally said. "I don't know what to say. For you to know it was your last chance...
"I'm never going to put this uniform on again, never going to play with these guys again. We were two wins away. It could have happened, but it didn't.''
Westover stormed back from a 14-point deficit and closed to four points in the fourth quarter, but every time the Patriots pushed Columbia, the Eagles went to JerShon Cobb, one of three Eagles who have already inked Division I scholarships. Cobb, a 6-foot-5 guard, is going to Northwestern, and the fans from Albany probably would have bought him a plane ticket to Evanston (Ill,) early if they could've.
Cobb, a four-year starter who has been to the Final Four every year and already won a state title as a sophomore, simply carried Columbia into tonight's state title game in Macon against LaGrange, which won Friday's other semifinal. He finished with 28 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter.
Ochie closed the gap to 43-39 with 6:01 left, but Cobb scored six of Columbia's next eight points, and zipped a slick assist to Jamal Reid inside for the other two to help Columbia keep the lead at six (51-45), then Tahj Shamsid-Deen scored on back-to-back breaks to lift Columbia to a 57-48 lead with 1:40 left.
"He's a great player,'' Smith said of Cobb. "We wanted to double him, but he made some good moves and was able to finish with the ball. They're a good team. The difference was their size and they finished with the ball.''
In the end, Westover just couldn't get enough shots to fall, watching all night as shot after shot rimmed out.
"The ball bounces funny sometimes,'' said senior guard Shevren Keaton, who has run the offense all season. "They weren't falling. We couldn't make the shots we usually make.''
Westover never blinked against the powerhouse Eagles, and raced out to a 7-0 lead on the quickness of guards Keaton and Anthony Ball, who made lightning passes inside to Wheeler, who then scored the first five points of the game before getting his own assist with a pass to Ochie inside for a 7-0 lead.
The Patriots (24-5) were still up 13-8, despite missing their final six shots of the first quarter. They missed their first four in the second for an 0-for-10 drought, but thanks to Malcolm Sapp, they still led 22-20, before Columbia closed the half with a 9-0 run to lead 29-22.
After making four of their first five shots, the Patriots went 4-for-19 for the rest of the first half in part because they were getting hammered every time they went inside. Columbia built the lead to 41-27 with 2:10 left in the third, but Sapp, who finished with 18 points, and Ochie, who scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half, led the comeback. Sapp hit a pair of 3s and Keion Miller came off the bench to add seven points in a 16-6 run that closed to 47-43.
But they never could grab the lead.
"If the ball bounces the other way in the fourth quarter it could have gone the other way,'' Smith said. "It's been a great run. The kids all year and in the postseason played with heart. I'm extremely proud of them. I can't say enough about their effort. They left it all on the floor. That's all you can ask.''