DAWSON -- At first it looked easy, but as Randolph-Clay's Region 1-A boys semifinal Friday against arch-rival Calhoun County wore on, it became anything but that.
The Red Devils sliced and diced the Cougars enroute to a 41-25 halftime lead, but had to hold for dear life in the final minutes as the Cougars stormed back, only to fall short, 85-74.
Shaquille Nunnally had four monster slams in leading the Red Devils with 22 points and into tonight's region championship game against Terrell County, which beat Pelham in the other semifinal.
The matchup is one both teams have been salivating over for more than a month -- the Red Devils eager to prove their 62-61 overtime win Jan. 22 was no fluke, while the Greenwave eager to avenge their only loss in Region 1-A this season.
"We're rivals. Always have been, always will be," Terrell coach John Davis said of facing Randolph-Clay. "We're a senior laden-team and so are they. Both teams are hungry, so I don't have to say too much. All I have to do is lay out the uniforms and lay out the shoes and it's motivation (enough)."
For Randolph-Clay -- a program that's won six state titles and once put together a streak of 90 straight wins between 2003-2006 under legendary coach Joe Williams -- the game has an even larger meaning.
Being a win away from the region title proves they belong once again -- but getting the win against recent region powerhouse Terrell County would officially mean they're back.
"It's been a tough two years trying to replace Coach Joe," said coach Oglesby Jackson, a former assistant under Williams who took over an R-C program in turmoil midseason of last year. "We've had to listen to a lot of nay-sayers talk about us. Maybe this will keep them quiet for awhile."
R-C's Dejuan Gilbert added 20 points, while Tim Stringer-Davis added 13 and Alkawan Sullivan chipped in 11.
R-C, which improved to 18-7 with the win, had to hold off a furious Calhoun comeback in the second half to stake its spot in the final. Spurred by 27 second-half points from Vincent Powell, the Cougars shaved the Red Devils' lead to nine points three times and seven once, 81-74, with 1:10 remaining in the game. Calhoun, however, could get no closer.
Powell led all scorers with 37 points, while Andras Carr added 11.
"I think we got a little tentative after building that big lead in the first half," Jackson said. "In the second half, it seemed to me we were playing more not to lose the game rather than to win it. But our guards finally started working the ball inside to our big men and that was the difference in the half.
"We can still improve. I like where we're at right now, but we can still get better each game we play."
Calhoun County second-year coach Marcus Shaw, who saw his team fall to 19-9 on the year, hoped the game would be a lesson for the Cougars, who now prepare for the state tournament for the second year in a row.
"We didn't play well at all in the first half," Shaw said. "We dug too deep of a hole. I'm happy we came back like we did, but you can't win games playing just half of a game. You have to play all four quarters. We have some things we have to tighten up before state."