Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

MACON -- Joy was pushing its way all over the locker room, touching every Terrell County kid, and you could hear laughter in every corner.

Terrell County had just beaten Turner County, 59-49, in the GHSA Class A Elite 8 round of the playoffs Friday, and there was just one place left to go, and just two games left to win to capture a state title.

"Five-four-three-two-one -- lift-off,'' shouted Terrell County guard Charles Brown. "Lift-off to Macon and the Final Four!''

Lift-off, indeed.

Funny how that word fits these kids, these kids who have to look up to every team they play, these bigger-than-life players who somehow have found their way back to the Final Four. They made the trip without a starter taller than 6-feet, and they arrived after losing Brian Browner, a two-year starter, to a knee injury during the region tournament.

They have been pushed and shoved and battered at times, but if these Greenwave players are anything, they are resilient.

"They have a mental toughness about them,'' Terrell County coach John Davis said Tuesday. "This team has demonstrated a toughness, a mental toughness about the game. They never quit. It doesn't matter what kind of officiating there is. It doesn't matter how big the other team is. It doesn't matter (if we get down on the scoreboard), they have a toughness that I am proud of.''

Call them Teflon Terrell County, where nothing sticks. The Greenwave just keep coming and coming at you.

Now they're here, and they'll play Whitefield Academy at 8:30 tonight in a rematch of last year's Final Four, a heartbreaking 72-68 overtime loss.

Brown's countdown was timely, but not accurate. The Terrell County kids have been counting down to tonight's game for a year -- exactly a year.

No one shouted lift-off then. No, the countdown started amid tears and the kind of pain that lingers and burns days, weeks, months later. It started in whispers and promises made back in Macon in a locker room that was so quiet you could hear a tear drop.

"We talked about it then, after that game,'' said Super 6er Terel Hall, Terrell County's lightning-quick point guard who does just about everything for the Greenwave. "We said we wanted to come back, to get back so we could redeem ourselves.

"Losing last year hurt. It hurt real bad. We talked about getting back that day, and when we got on the bus we said, 'We'll be back.' And we talked about it this summer. Coach Davis told us this summer that even though we don't have the height we could get back to the Final Four.''

And here they are, not just in the Final Four, but against Whitefield, a team that according to at least one blog by The Atlanta Journal Constitution is the favorite to win the title.

Why not? The Wolfpack (28-3) have lost just two games in Georgia -- to Class AA Thomasville and to Class A Greenville, which meets top-ranked Wilkinson County in the other side of bracket at 5:30 p.m. today.

Whitefield beat defending state champ Wesleyn, 63-52, in the first round of the playoffs then ripped Athens Christian, 90-55, and North Cobb Christian, 86-59, to roll back to the Final Four with a 10-game winning streak.

The Wolfpack return three starters, the same three players -- Kennard Backman, a physical 6-4 forward, and Kenneth Gaines and Tekele Cotton, a pair of 6-3 guards -- who led Whitefield a year ago in a game Terrell County felt it should have won.

The Greenwave might have, but four starters fouled out and the team's sixth man, Dekoven Ware, was knocked out of the game when he was poked in the eye. Hall was also injured, taking a hard hit on a drive and hitting the floor so hard he injured his leg.

"Yeah, my leg was hurting,'' said Hall, who limped through the rest of the game. "I was limping but I had to give it everything I had.''

That "give it everything I had'' line should be on bumper stickers in Dawson, where the community embraces this team like few anywhere. There will no doubt be a green wave of fans tonight in Macon. They remember what it felt like to watch their kids in OT with one starter on the floor.

"I felt alone,'' said Brown, the only starter who didn't foul out. "I was mad and hurt. We wanted to win so bad, and now we want it even more. We're a different team, older and better and we play together as a team even more this year. We're better. We're faster, wiser and hungrier.''

Few wanted the rematch as much as Ware.

"Yes, I wanted to play Whitefield again,'' he said. "Because of what happened last year, because of the way we lost the game and because of what happened to me, getting hit in the eye. I left the court with my eye bleeding. I was ready to play them the minute I heard it this week. I wanted to play the game right then.''

The irony is that when Ware took the shot in his right eye that floored him, he was charged with a foul on the play. There was a lot of pain involved in that loss.

"It hurt me,'' Davis said. "It was very emotional last year to finish the season with a heartbreaking loss in overtime. It hurt a lot. I had seen the light in that game, seen that we could win it, and thought we were going to win it.''

Davis believes this year's team is better. Not only are his three starters older and tougher, but each has stepped up in their own way, especially Brown, who has emerged as an outside scoring threat.

Forget his 12-points-per game average. He can get hot and change a game in a flash.

Hall is the ultimate point guard, who not only averages 17 points and eight assists a game, but bangs inside for rebounds. He is an artist at running the floor, and when the Greenwave run, few can run with them. Even Ware, who has emerged as a 6-foot force inside, averaging a double-double for the season (12 points and 10 rebounds) gets out on the break and simply out-quicks bigger post players for points.

"When you have someone with quickness like he has he can fill the lane (get out on fast breaks) and he handles the ball well,'' Davis said. "He can beat his (bigger) man to the basket.''

Davis calls Hall, "a coach's dream,'' because his point guard does so much for this team, and added that Brown has made giant steps this season.

Davis has rotated three players, Markez Dotson, a returning starter, sophomore guard Tray Buchannan, who brings his own brand of quickness to the mix, and Elliot Harvey, a 6-1 wide body who has come off the bench to give Davis some big minutes this season, to find the right matchups with opponents.

Ware knows the secret.

"We're better because we jell as a team a lot more this year,'' he said. "We play more as a team.''

That's why Terrell County (26-3) is so tough to beat. The Greenwave come at you in waves, and score from all over the floor with lighting passes from Hall and a defense that lives on the run.

"They do the little things to negate the other team's height,'' Davis said. "They realize they're smaller but they don't allow it to be a hardship. They use it as a stepping stone.''

A stepping stone to literally lift off.

"They decided to come together at that point in that locker room last year after we lost to Whitefield,'' Davis said. "To come together and to get back to the Final Four. I remember what it was like in the locker room ... They have played hard and with this team it is all about the team. It has its mind made up we are a team. To get to the Final Four is a hard, awesome road, and this team has come together on that road.''