Deerfield’s Jay Barber, right, puts up a shot in the lane over the Tattnall defense during Saturday’s GISA Class AAA Elite 8 in Macon. (Lee McDavid Studios/Special to The Herald)
MACON — If you’re thinking about playing Deerfield-Windsor, be sure and grab one of those yellow construction hard hats and a blue collar shirt.
You might want to throw a shovel and some other tools in the pickup and, if you get a chance, lease a bulldozer while you’re at it.
Because when the Knights hit the basketball court, they bring a “Men at Work,” sign with them.
You could hear it in DWS coach Gordy Gruhl’s voice from the bench Saturday afternoon.
“Make ’em work! Make ’em work, baby,” shouted Gruhl as he watched his team take care of Tattnall Square, 59-32, at Stratford in the quarterfinals of the GISA Class AAA state tournament.
Sure, these Knights, who have won 18 in a row, can fly, and shoot and glide. Players like Herald Super 6er Ramello Carter can hang in the air and tease gravity, and these kids can spray the court with rainbow 3s or break your back with the best fastbreak in all of GISA.
But at the heart of all that’s right with this fast-paced, high-flying team is a gritty in-your-face defense that never seems to quit, a good old-fashioned work hard mentality — and then work some more — that may put its stamp on this season with a state title.
There’s sweat and some grime and grit on those blue-collar necks at DWS, where the kids heard Gruhl’s words “Make ’em work, baby!” and then made Tattnall feel them.
“They took everything away from us,’’ Tattnall Square coach Wes Parker said after losing to DWS for the third time this season.
But the other losses weren’t like this one.
This one sent DWS back to the Final Four, where the Knights (23-3) will next face Dominion Christian at 7 p.m. on Friday at Mercer. DWS is just two wins away from the school’s seventh state title and what would be the sixth for Gruhl. This one was also different because the Knights, who last won the title in 2010, made this year’s trip to the Final Four look easy by working so hard to get there.
How bad was it?
With three minutes left in the game, Tattnall had made just seven baskets. That’s right, seven baskets from the floor.
“Wow,” said Gruhl when he heard the number. “I didn’t realize that. That’s some pretty good defense. That’s great defense.”
Tattnall opened the game with an inside shot to take its only lead and then went 6-for-30 until Tevyn Rodgers, a backup who came into the game in the fourth quarter, hit a 3-pointer with 2:59 left in the game. It was 56-25 before he launched his 3.
DWS forced 29 turnovers and stopped Tattnall from thinking about scoring for most of the game.
“We smothered them,’’ Gruhl said.
Tattnall had other ideas.
“Our game plan was to go inside on them,” Parker said. “They are really quick. They’re quick and athletic, and the turnovers at midcourt kept us from going inside and gave them a lot of transition baskets.”
That’s where the Knights live, running the break and running teams off the court. It all starts with that grind-it-out defense.
“We were focused on their big guys,” said Weston King, DWS’ post in the middle who scored eight points to go along with eight boards. “We knew if we could get the job done inside we could make it hard on them. You have to play defense with five guys going hard. That’s the way we have played defense all year. We get after it.”
They made life miserable for the Trojans (17-9), who were led by Grayson Brown, the son of former MLB All-Star pitcher Kevin Brown. He led Tattnall with 12 points.
“This was our best defensive game of the year,’’ King said.
Carter, who left after three quarters with the game well in hand, led the Knights with 23 points, but for a while it appeared the rim on the south end of the gym had something against Carter. Everything he threw up was just spit back out. Drives, jump shots, 3-pointers — everything bounced around flirting and skipping in and out, dancing on the edges before spinning away. At one point in the second quarter, Carter missed six shots in a row, and every one of them looked like money in the bank. He even saw a pair of free throws bounce in and out during the slump.
“You just have to keep going, keep pushing,” Carter said of his horrible luck in the first half. “As long as we were scoring and we were winning, I felt fine. My teammates were scoring, and I knew my shots were going to come.’’
Carter, who had scored four points in the opening minutes, put the distance between the two teams with a flurry to end the half. He finally broke the 0-for-6 drought with a free throw with 1:08 left in the half and then banked in a shot and completed an and-one play before nailing a pair of free throws with 1.9 seconds left on the clock to finish the half with a personal 6-0 run that lifted DWS to a 30-17 lead. Carter didn’t miss another shot, going 6-for-6 from the field and adding a free throw in the second half.
“That rim on that end hated him in first half, but the rim in the second half loved him,” joked Gruhl. “It all starts with him. I don’t ever worry about him. He wasn‘t getting anything to fall and it was still a close game, and then he starting scoring at the end of the half and we went up by13.’’
Gruhl was just relieved to get this game out of the way.
“This is the one that I worry about,’’ said Gruhl, a legend who won his 1,000th career game last year and shows no signs of slowing down. “We’re expected to go to the Final Four every year. If we don’t go then our season is looked at as not being a success. After as hard as this team has worked, I didn’t want that to happen to them.”
Gruhl then added with a smile: “We’re in the Final Four. Now we can relax. We just have to go out and play (next weekend). This is the game that gets in my gut. It’s gut-wrenching to win this one. I looked up at one point and we were up by 30 points. I didn’t even realize it. I was just into the game.”
Everyone was working hard.
“We’ve always had teams that played good defense,’’ Gruhl said. “There’s no question about it, playing defense is hard work. This was probably our best defensive game of the year. I can’t think of a better one.’’
Gruhl has won five state titles and said he doesn’t know if this year’s group is his best defensive team or not. He knows they work as hard as any, but he also knows there’s work to be done next weekend.
“The jury is still out,’’ he said. “We have two games left.’’
Better grab a hard hat.