Dartontay McCoy nearly willed the Early County boys basketball team to a win Thursday night in the Region 1-AA semifinals with 20 points, but the Bobcats fell short, 57-52.
QUITMAN — Darontay McCoy’s voice was low, way down there where it hurts. His vocal chords were fine. His heart was just a bit out of sync.
“We will come out stronger,’’ he said. “This will make us better.’’
Thursday‘s bitter, 57-52 loss to Thomasville in the Region 1-AA semifinals might just do that for Early County, a team that has played bigger than its size all year.
The Bobcats had to rise up and play bigger against Thomasville — play bigger or get run over by the Bulldogs’ enormous front, which stands 6-foot-8, 6-6, and 6-6.
Nobody runs over Early, and in the end it took huge once-in-a career shots by a couple of Bulldogs who came off the bench just in time to lift Thomasville into tonight’s Region 1-AA championship game in Quitman.
Early County, ranked No. 2 in The Herald’s Fab 5 Poll, is now relegated to the third-place game at 5:30 p.m. against Cook, but McCoy promises much more out of the Bobcats tonight — and if Early delivers, it might just be ready to make a significant run in the state tournament next week. They ran hard at state-ranked Thomasville, which stormed out to a big lead on the shoulders of Greg Wimberly, and hung on, thanks to a floater from Andrew Parker, who gave the Bulldogs a 50-48 lead, and a long 2-pointer by Devonta Wyche with 1:37 left to all but seal the game.
Those two backups backed Early into a corner, and even Ladonis Yarbrough’s 3-pointer with 1:22 left wasn’t enough, because Wyche answered it with a pair of free throws with 58 seconds left to make it a 54-51 game, and Wimberly, who did everything but make out the lineup, blocked his third shot of the game to all but put it away for Thomasville.
Yarbrough finished with 14 points, and Jacori Taylor finished with six before fouling out. Thomasville‘s 6-8 center Willie Clayton scored nine points and also fouled out.
“The difference in the game was Greg (Wimberly),’’ Early County coach Randy Isom said. “We shut everybody else down, but he showed up. He showed up and stepped up.’’
Wimberly opened the game with an alley-oop slam and never slowed down. He just kept coming, and Thomasville took an 11-2 lead before the Bobcats knew what hit them. Wimberly went to halftime with 18 points that lifted his team to a 31-25 lead. Then he opened the second half with a trey to lift the Bulldogs to a 34-25 cushion. He finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and the respect of everyone in the Brooks County gym.
Thomasville built the lead to 10 and 12 points at times, but Early simply wouldn’t go away.
“We had a rough time early in the game,’’ McCoy said. “But coach told us we had to get going, and we had to run. That‘s what we did in the second half.’’
Despite being outsized, Early came back, forcing 21 turnovers, including 12 in the second half. McCoy was inspiring as he and 6-2 center Taylor battled inside all night. It was Taylor’s first game back from a knee injury, but his return shows promise for a Bobcats team that can run with anyone.
McCoy scored 11 of his team-high 20 points in the fourth quarter and finally caught the Bulldogs when he dropped in three free throws after a Bulldogs’ technical foul. Then he banked in a put-back on the ensuing possession to knot things at 48-48 with 3:57 left.
“Darontay gave me everything,’’ Isom said. “And I’m so proud of Cori, the way he played against those 6-8, 6-6 guys. When we tied it, I thought we were going to win it. We just needed to get the lead. If we would have taken the lead, they would could have made them come out of their zone and play us man-to-man.’’
Then Thomasville’s back-ups struck back.
They hit back-to-back big shots to lift Thomasville, which is the three-time defending Region 1-AA champions.
“About the only thing we did wrong was in our shot selection,’’ Isom said. “We just need to take better shots — shots that favor us. But I’m proud of my kids. We were down by 10, 12 points, and we fought back. They have the character to be fighters. We just have to be smarter. We have to be smarter fighters.’’
And maybe a little stronger.
“We will be stronger,’’ McCoy promised.