ALBANY — At its very core, basketball is a simple game — put the ball in the basket, hit your free throws and don’t turn the ball over.
Unfortunately for Monroe on Saturday night, the Tornadoes did none of the above when the game was on the line.
Monroe squandered a 10-point halftime lead, scoring just three field goals in the second half as Howard’s Davonte Tharpe hit three straight 3-pointers to rally the Huskies to a 44-36 victory in the opening round of the GHSA Class AAA state playoffs.
Monroe, which closed the season at 17-8, utterly collapsed in the fourth quarter, turning the ball over on three of four possessions in the final 1:12 as Howard (18-11) calmly hit seven of 10 free throws to keep the Tornadoes at bay.
“I can’t tell you what happened to us,” a stunned Monroe coach Marquis Davis said afterward. “You watched the same game I did. The game changed late in the third quarter when (Tharpe) hit those threes from the corner. That’s where the game changed. But this is playoff basketball. You have to hit your free throws and take care of the ball and we didn’t do it.”
Even the surprise return of Rontavious Gilbert, a Herald Super 6er, who was doubtful because of an ankle injury, didn’t help the Tornadoes. Gilbert entered the game late in the first quarter and played at least 16 minutes but scored just three points — all from the foul line.
Fellow Super 6er Jabari McGhee led Monroe with 12 points, but only two of those points came in the second half. McGhee scored Monroe’s first six points as the teams ended the first quarter knotted at 13-13. Monroe took advantage of five Howard turnovers in the second quarter to surge to a 25-15 lead at the half.
The second half, however, was a different story.
“We turned it up a notch or two in the second half,” Howard coach Jay Lunce said. “I think early in the game we were intimidated by their height, but I told them as long as we stay under control that we’d be OK. The key to the game, at least to me, were Tharpe’s 3-pointers and that we hit our free throws with the game on the line.”
Despite the lack of scoring, Monroe still carried a 31-27 lead into the fourth quarter. A Gilbert free throw with 6:45 to go pushed the lead to 32-27, but the Tornadoes would not score again for the next four and a half minutes.
Tharpe hit a 3 to cut it to 32-30 and Brandon Glover followed with a baseline layup to tie the game at 32-32 with 5:20 remaining. Tharpe converted a steal a minute later to give the Huskies their first lead at 34-32 with 4:21 to go.
The Tornadoes would get no closer than two points the rest of the way.
“Maybe we stood around too much in the second half, I don’t know,” Davis said. “(Howard) seemed to have more energy than us. The bottom line is we turned the ball over too much, missed way too many free throws and left way too many points on the floor.”
Tharpe led Howard with 11 points.
The Huskies will play Henry County on Wednesday in the second round of the state playoffs.
Westover has easy time against Westside, Macon:
Westover stormed into Macon, grabbed a 20-point lead against No. 2 seeded Westside, Macon, and put away the Seminoles, 77-63, to win the opening-round game in the Class AAA state playoffs Saturday night.
Westover (20-9) took a 25-17 lead after one quarter. Then, the Patriots’ perimeter scoring tandem of T.J. Cromer (19 points) and Herald Super 6er Dequan Green (15 points) found their stroke, combining for four 3-pointers in the second quarter.
Westside attempted to keep pace but the team’s star, Ronnie Mays, was held to just three first-half points.
“That’s the way we play,” Westover coach Dallis Smith said. “I really thought coming into the game that we matched up well. We certainly played with a lot of intensity.”
Westover, which finished third in the Region 1-AAA tournament will play Wednesday against the winner of the Drew-Washington County game.
Dougherty falls on the road:
Dougherty saw its season end in the first round of the Class AAA state playoffs on the road, falling to Central, Macon, 59-43, as the Trojans fell behind early and never could take the lead.
Darrell Anthony led Dougherty with 13 points and Alford Brown had 12 — all courtesy of four 3-pointers. Michael Miller added nine points.
“We knew they were quick, we didn’t do a good job of holding onto the ball and they did a good job of doing what they were doing,” Dougherty coach Donald Poole said.
Although Central never trailed, it did have to buckle down defensively to disrupt the offensive rhythm of the Trojans, who were able to use their speed to drive toward the basket and keep the game close, trailing by as few as five points when a Brown 3-pointer trimmed the Central lead to 21-16 in the second quarter.
But Central took a 30-22 halftime lead, and was still up, 35-26, as the teams headed into the fourth quarter.
Dougherty, which did not play a home game because of construction at the school, ends its season at 8-14.