Mitchell County’s Stacey Butler (25) fights for a rebound during the first half of Friday’s GHSA Class A Elite 8 game against Lanier in Milledegeville. The Eagles, who were big underdogs against the state-ranked Bulldogs, not only held their own, but had a shot to win it in the final seconds, but Butler’s shot was just off the mark. (Shine Rankin/South Georgia Sports Network)
MILLEDGEVILLE — Stacey Butler was on his knees, his head buried in his hands, his heart broken.
But that’s not the image they will take with them back to Mitchell County, not after this one — not after the way the Eagles stood up to Lanier County in the Elite 8 round of the Class A state playoffs Friday at the Centennial Center at Georgia College and State University.
“I just wanted one more second, one more second,’’ said Mitchell County assistant coach Derex Woumnm after he watched his team fall to Lanier County, 45-44, in a game that left tears on the court.
Tears and kids, fell to the floor when Butler’s final shot skipped off the rim. Joquil Chester followed up the long rebound after the miss and tossed up a prayer at the buzzer, but his game-saver betrayed him.
“I didn’t get a clear look at the basket, but I thought it was going in,’’ said Butler of his runner from about 10 feet out. “I shot a little early to give us a chance to get a rebound, but when I let it go I thought it was going in. I gave it enough arc to (bank in), but it just fell short.’’
Then he paused, his eyes still red from tears.
“It hurts, it really hurts to lose like that,’’ Butler said. “Nobody thought we could beat them. They beat us by one point, but I don’t think they are one point better. I just can’t believe it’s the end …”
Butler’s drive with 3:41 left in the game gave Mitchell its first lead of the night in a game that many thought was over at the end of the first quarter.
It didn’t end until the two teams had swapped the lead five times in the final two minutes. It didn’t end until the Eagles had surprised everyone in Georgia — but themselves — with a gritty and inspired comeback against a Lanier team — ranked No. 5 in the state — many think will win the state title.
“Those were men out there,’’ Woumnm said, referring to Lanier’s physical size and bulk that intimidates everyone. The Bulldogs aren’t just 6-foot-6, 6-5 and 6-4 up front, they are built like linebackers and looked even bigger against Mitchell’s small, but fast, lineup.
“Nobody gave us a chance to beat the No. 5 team in the state,” Woumnm said. “But we could have beaten them. We had our chances and just fell short. That’s why it hurts so much. I am so proud of the way my kids fought and came back.”
And it was quite the comeback, considering the Eagles’ dreadful start.
Mitchell missed its first 15 shots and was down 14-2 after the first quarter, scoring on a couple of Dequan Williams’ free throws. Early on, Lanier was faster and bigger — much, much bigger — and killing Mitchell on the boards, and it looked like a rout was about to take place.
“When they jumped out like that I told the kids if we just keep fighting we can win the game,’’ Woumnm said. “I told them we would get the opportunity; we would have a chance to win the game.’’
They believed him.
After trailing 21-10 at halftime, Mitchell’s pressure started getting to Lanier and the Eagles forced five consecutive turnovers in the final three minutes of the third quarter and rushed their way back into the game, down just 31-27 after three.
The Eagles caught Lanier when Bruce Bryant made a steal and zipped a pass to Butler, who dropped in a 35-35 tie with 4:15 left, and a large crowd from Mitchell (they brought five busloads of fans) were on their feet believing the comeback would reach fruition.
In the end, free throws killed both teams, but Mitchell paid the price, missing four free throws in the final 2:36 of the game that might have sealed it.
Butler gave Mitchell the 38-37 lead and the Eagles pushed it to 42-39 when Williams, who scored 19 points to lead the way, made a steal and a drive with 1:30 left.
Lanier (26-4) climbed back in by making two of four free throws to close to 42-41, and when Bryant missed two free throws with 1:02 left, it left the door open for Lanier.
Teddy Somolo hit two free throws with 55 seconds left to lift Lanier to a 43-42 lead, but Mitchell snapped right back and Williams hit a drive to give Mitchell its final lead of the game — 44-43 with 47 seconds left.
Lanier’s Malick Kone missed two free throws with 40 seconds left, but Emmanuel Ezoua, who led Lanier with 19 points and 15 rebounds, grabbed the rebound and — after being fouled — he dropped in two free throws with 38 seconds left to give Lanier a 45-44 lead.
Mitchell ran a perfect play and Butler found Daron Hodges inside by himself, but Hodges’ shot skipped away and Lanier’s Junior Gnonkonde grabbed the rebound. Gnonkonde missed two free throws with 8.2 seconds left and Butler fought off two bigger players to grab the rebound.
Woumnm called a timeout with 5.6 seconds left to run a play to win it. Butler raced ahead and found an open spot on the floor and fired what looked like a shot to shake Camilla, but it skipped away.
“We fought. We fought. We fought,’’ Woumnm said afterward. “I’m so proud of my kids, so proud. They are hurting for this loss, and I’m hurting. I never doubted that they would fight back. The way they came back … I really wanted this so bad.’’
So did everyone in Camilla, where this story will grow and grow. And when they talk about the comeback that fell just short, Butler knows the secret that kept Mitchell going all night.
“It’s our heart,’’ he said. “That’s what brought us back. We have heart. We just fell short.”