The Pelham boys basketball team gather at centercourt Friday after winning the Region 1-AA title and completing an unbeaten region season.
PELHAM — Jaquan Green couldn't stop dancing.
Right there at center court with the rest of his Pelham teammates, the junior lifted the Region 1-AA championship trophy on Friday night and broke into celebration after beating Early County, 52-39, for the program's first region title since 2005.
No one could stop the Herald No. 5 Hornets from celebrating Friday night — but of course no one from Region 1-AA has been able to stop them all year.
After running the table in the region in the regular season, the Hornets rolled through the tournament as the No. 1 seed, bringing home the title in their first season after moving up from Class A — a dominating season that no one outside of the Pelham locker room saw coming.
It's why Green couldn't stop dancing.
"That felt good," Green said. "Celebrating like that with my teammates, that was fun. Some of them are seniors, and it's their last year. We had to get this for them."
That's the attitude this season at Pelham, where it's more about the team than any individual.
It's how they pulled away from Cook County in Thursday night's semifinal game and slammed the door on Early County's upset bid on Friday, turning a two-point game with five minutes left into a 13-point win.
Green finished with nine points in the title game and was one of five Hornets to score at least eight points. Junior Darrius Spence led the way with 14, while Shaquille Crimley scored 10 and Shydarius Williams and Clifford Stewart each finished with eight.
"Not just one person scores," Green said. "The whole team gets points and gives their hardest. When we step on the court we go hard. It's a balanced team."
The Hornets lost just two players from last year's team, and Pelham coach Laron Smith said it was his returning talent, the team's unselfish attitude and the balanced scoring attack that had him believing before the season even started.
"This is as balanced as I have ever been," said Smith, who has now won four region titles in his 15 years at Pelham. "I have shooters, I have ball handlers and I have some bigs. I had high expectations for them from the very start. We got off to that slow start, but I knew that if we could just hang on and settle down then everything would be OK."
Pelham (20-7) has now won seven in a row and 17 of its last 18 games and is surging into the Class AA state playoffs as a No. 1 seed.
The Hornets immediately jumped on Early County (16-11) and took a 14-8 lead after the first quarter and stayed on top the rest of the way.
The No. 3 seed Bobcats, who were playing in their first region championship game in six years after upsetting Thomasville in Thursday's semifinal, weren't going away easy though. Behind a balanced scoring attack of its own, Early County — which was led by Devontrae Jackson and Jacori Taylor's eight points — pulled to within two points with five minutes left, but Pelham didn't miss a free throw down the stretch for the second night in a row and held on for the win.
"The main thing that hurts us every time we play Pelham, is that Pelham hits their free throws," Early County coach Randy Isom said. "If we would have hit our free throws then we would have either been in the lead or been right there to put pressure on them. But they are very solid on the free throw line, and that's something we already knew."
The Hornets hit 14-of-14 free throws in the fourth quarter against Cook County in the semifinals and nailed all five of their attempts in the final eight minutes against Early County.
Smith said that late-game focus was something that carried his team throughout its regular-season run.
"This group of guys is focused. We took it one game at a time, found our way and established who we were as a team," Smith said. "The guys have handled all of that. We entered the Top 10 (poll in the state) three weeks ago, and that hasn't changed our focus. Coming into the region tournament we knew what our goals were and our expectations were."
Expectations before the season weren't high outside of Pelham with the Hornets jumping up a class into a region full of basketball powerhouses.
"They thought we were going to be underdogs when we came into the region," Green said. "They thought that they would just run over us."
Pelham didn't budge.
The Hornets' only loss since Jan. 3 was a 66-57 setback against rival Mitchell County on Jan. 26. Against Region 1-AA opponents, they were 12-0 and won by an average of 14 points.
After accepting the championship trophy, the Hornets began to head back to the locker room before Smith cut them off and told them to turn around.
"I told them, 'Go see your fans,' " Smith said. "All year long those fans were right there for us. We got off to an 0-3 start and were really struggling, but our fans were still there. And once we got it rolling, they were still right there."
And right there along with their fans, friends and family, they started dancing.