Albany High’s Tim Pierce, right, flies around Bleckley County’s Marcus Mack durng the second half of Tuesday’s GHSA Class AA State Tournament Sweet 16 game on the Indians’ home floor. Pierce, who led Albany High with 23 points in its opening-round win this past Saturday, was the man once again Tuesday, scoring 29 points and lifting the Indians to the Elite 8, which will be played Saturday at 8:30 p.m. in Savannah against Vidalia. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALBANY — These are the playoffs?
Really? This is what Albany High waited for all year? This is what these kids strained and pushed and shoved and worked so hard to get to?
Well, this has been nothing but fun for the Indians, who once again romped and rolled in another laugher, this time in the Sweet 16 round of Class AA state playoffs Wednesday night.
This time it was against Bleckley County’s Royals, a tough, young group of kids who can run and shoot with the best of them in their part of the state.
Not in the Good Life City. Not against Albany High.
It was 68-41 at the end, but it was over long before the buzzer sounded. The Fat Lady could have started clearing her throat shortly after the The National Anthem, and she could have belted out the encore to the best opera in Southwest Georgia a little after halftime.
This was an Albany High party, a celebration on the court that ironically ended with no celebration at all.
The Albany High kids didn’t jump or holler or shout.
They just walked off like the court and into the Elite 8 like they were supposed to be there. All evidence says they do.
They now face Vidalia at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday at Savannah State in their first appearance in the Elite 8 in seven years.
“We got this far last year,’’ said Albany coach Archie Chatmon, whose team lost in the Sweet 16 to Lamar County a year ago. “We talked a lot about taking the next step. We have taken the next step.’’
Make that one giant leap.
“They look like a Final Four team to me,’’ Bleckley coach Clifford Kerbo said. “They are the best team I’ve seen all year — in all phases. They just do so much to you. We couldn’t get a shot off. They just suffocated us on defense.’’
Bleckley County (20-11) hit the court on fire. Rydealous Taylor opened the game with a 3, and the Royals hit their next two shots, and just like that it was 7-0.
Then the Royals met Tim Pierce.
“God almighty, we didn’t have an answer for him,’’ Kerbo said if Pierce.
Pierce scored Albany High’s first points of the night with 5:32 left in the first quarter, and from that point until he left the game with about 2:30 left, he literally outscored Bleckley by himself.
Do the math: Pierce finished with 29 points and left with Albany leading 61-33, which means he poured in 29 points to Bleckley’s 26 during that stretch, and he did it after taking a beating every time he went inside. He never complained about not getting fouls called. He just kept coming ... and coming ... and coming.
“That’s Tim,’’ Chatmon said. “He takes it personally. He doesn’t cry. He doesn’t pout. He just asserts himself even more. That’s what the great players do. And he is a great player. I don’t throw that word out there. I haven’t had many great players, but he is one.’’
Pierce’s fire ignited Albany High.
“Our guys didn’t panic, and Tim got us going,’’ Chatmon said. “Once he got going our guys got loose and we got some momentum and their (Bleckley starts five juniors) youth started to show. That was Tim being Tim. That’s the real Tim. He’s letting everybody know who he is. I don’t know what else to say. I have run out of superlatives for him.’’
Pierce went 4-for-5 from the floor and dropped in 10 points to lift the Indians to a 16-11 first quarter lead, and then everyone got into the act as Albany came back from 7-0 and outscored Beckley, 30-15, to take a 30-22 halftime lead. Pierce had another 10-point quarter in the third and the Indians raced out to a 46-29 lead and just kept soaring, opening the fourth with a 20-4 run for a 66-33 lead.
By the time it was over, the Indians could have already starting booking rooms in Savannah and started scouting their next opponent.
By the time it was over, Emmanul Byrd (the quarterback turned rebounder) had slammed in the biggest dunk of his life, a two-fisted, in-your-face statement that brought down the packed house at the Albany High gym — the last place they’re playing high school hoops in town. Byrd finished with four points, 13 rebounds and a blocked shot.
By the time it was over, Tyrone Culbreth, the prodigal son who left for Deerfield and returned just in time for Albany’s best season in years, was on the oop end of an alley-oop dunk, slamming home his most dramatic two points of the season. He finished with 15 rebounds and two blocked shots.
Larry Sanford had another big game, dropping in 16 points, and there were some Ken-Sanity moments, too. That’s what Chatmon calls Kenny Anderson, the team’s ultimate role player, who did a little of everything again, scoring eight points and grabbing eight rebounds and helping an unrelenting defense force 18 turnovers that the Indians cashed into 20 transition points.
Chatmon has a long-standing policy of not allowing his players to talk with the media, but they have said everything they need to say on the court in two playoff games, outscoring Appling County (100-75) and Bleckley by a combined 52 points in the playoffs.
It was a party. Someone should have brought balloons and cake.
Maybe that will come later. For now, Albany High, which has put together the best record in its history (26-2), takes a 15-game winning streak to Savannah. The Indians, ranked No. 1 in The Herald’s Fab 5 Poll and No. 3 in the Class AA state poll, have won 19 of their last 20 games.
“It’s been seven years since we have been to the Elite 8 and you appreciate every step you take in the state tournament,’’ Chatmon said. “There’s nothing promised. I’m old, and I really appreciate it. This was the one we needed to take, and we knocked down the door to take this step.
“Now we just need to take the next step. I’m not satisfied.’’