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GISA CLASS AAA BOYS STATE TOURNAMENT: Deerfield repeat derailed

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

AMERICUS -- It's over.

Deerfield's magical and improbable run from a football state title to another basketball crown ended on a spring-like day in Americus.

And it ended with some grit and some courage -- and enough character to fill up a Disney movie.

After all, no one expected Deerfield to stick around in this one, not against the most formidable GISA team in Georgia, Mt. Vernon, which is expected to waltz its way next week to a state title that folks in Atlanta have been talking about all year.

But there the Knights were, hanging around and making life miserable for the top-ranked team in the state until the end before the Knights succumbed, 51-44.

Deerfield was there, however, until the end -- the very end when Mt. Vernon's Madison Burton dropped in four free throws in the final 12 seconds to put DWS away in the Elite 8 round of the GISA Class AAA State Tournament at Georgia Southwestern.

"I don't know if that's the best team we've played all year,'' said Mt. Vernon coach Curtis Berry, whose squad whipped Deerfield during their lone regular-season meeting, 61-32, in the Knights' third game of the year. "But they certainly played a fantastic ball game. They were more focused (this time around) and a lot more determined and it showed.''

The Knights just missed hitting Goliath with the rock.

"I couldn't ask for anything more,'' DWS coach Gordy Gruhl said. "(My guys) showed a lot of character. I know that term is overused, but character is about what happens when things go bad. Things were pretty bad when we got down by 13 points, and that's when they showed their character and came back. We executed our game plan. We just came up a little short.''

Deerfield, which was much shorter than Mt. Vernon, even made its final run without its biggest starter, Tyrone Culbreth, who fouled out with 6:34 left in the game with DWS trailing, 40-32.

Still, the Knights, who trailed 29-16 in the third quarter, wouldn't go away as Zach Cleland came off the bench and scored five points, including a big 3 in the closing moments of the game to keep the Knights in it, and Ramello Carter's 3-pointer with 3:52 left cut the lead to 42-41.

It was 44-42 when Mt. Vernon's Lotanna Nwogbo made the play that all but defined the game. The 6-foot-6 Nigerian native, who owned the glass all day, grabbed an air-ball shot on the backside of the basket and literally dropped in a 46-42 lead with 59 seconds left.

Nwogbo had a double-double by halftime and finished with 20 points and 18 rebounds -- and ultimately finished Deerfield's season.

"He's a monster,'' Gruhl said. "They've got a bunch of monsters.''

Gruhl knew what his young team was up against, and didn't sugar-coat it. "I told our kids before the game they're better, but that upsets happen."

Deerfield (20-5) might have pulled off the upset, but the Knights picked the wrong day to get freezer burn at the free throw line. They made only 10 of 26 free throws, including 5 of 15 in the first half when Mt. Vernon pulled away to a 27-16 halftime lead.

"That's not us,'' Gruhl said. "You don't like to blame anything on one thing, but we're a pretty good free-throw shooting team. If we make free throws, then we are hanging onto the lead at the end of the game instead of trying to catch them.''

And when DWS missed, Nwogbo was there for the rebound. Culbreth, who has had a sterling season inside for the Knights, finished the game with a career-low five rebounds. Banks Kinslow, a guard, and Sam Shellhaas a small forward, led DWS with seven rebounds each.

"It's the only time all year Tyrone didn't lead us in rebounds,'' Gruhl said.

Mt. Vernon was simply bigger, faster and a lot more physical than Deerfield.

"They're big and strong and tough to beat. Their guards were three or four three inches bigger than me and Ramello,'' said Kinslow, who was the only starter back from last year's state champion squad.

Gruhl had to begin almost anew with 10 sophomores and most of his team got a late start, because Kinslow, an all-state quarterback, and eight others were busy winning the Class AAA state football title.

They hit the court running just two days after the championship game and never stopped in a quest for what would have been all but unheard of -- a basketball state title, followed by a football title and another basketball title.

No one even mentions that kind of trifecta, because you would have better odds in winning the lottery.

Still, there they were, hanging in there until the end -- knowing if they won, they would not see a better team next week in the Final Four. Some were calling this the unofficial state title game, but everyone had already picked Mt. Vernon (32-2, with only one loss in the state of Georgia) to win it all.

"We've been the favorites all year,'' Berry said.

A state title might have been that close for Deerfield.

"No one thought we had chance against them except ourselves,'' Kinslow said. "We told ourselves we would have to get after it, and our defense kept us in the game. Our free throws killed us, especially in the first half.

"We cut it down to a point and it was a two-point game (neat) the end. A basket here or there ... But they hit their free throws at the end of the game, and we had a bad day shooting free throws.''

Carter led DWS with 14 points and Culbreth finished with eight points. Shellhaas (seven) and Kinslow (six) followed. Burton finished with 15 points, hitting 8-of-10 free throws, including going 6-for-6 in the fourth quarter.

Mt. Vernon needed them all.