A Turner County player lays on the floor as Wilkinson County celebrates a Class A state title following a game-ending turnover by the Rebels. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
MACON — The ball was in Nate Martin’s hands — exactly where Turner County coach Tyrone Kellogg wanted it for the final seconds of Thursday’s Class A state championship game against Wilkinson County.
But then in an instant, the ball was floating out of bounds, ending Turner County’s stunning comeback and clinching a 72-64 victory for Wilkinson County.
It was a cruel ending for a Turner County team that fought back from a 12-point deficit with three minutes left and pulled to within two points in the closing seconds.
With six seconds left and trailing by three points, Martin — Turner County’s star point guard — took an inbounds pass near the top of the key. But instead of attempting a game-tying 3-pointer, Martin had the ball jarred loose from his hands by a Wilkinson County defender, and in a desperate attempt to salvage the play Martin batted the ball past a teammate and into the crowd.
“He was supposed to shoot it, but the guy was right there on his left hand, so I guess he went to take a dribble and try to clear himself,” said Kellogg, who used a timeout to draw up the play, which broke Martin free with a double screen. “The guy got a piece of it and he tried to slap it to one of his teammates, and that’s how it ended. That’s just how it goes sometimes. Sometimes you win them, and sometimes you lose them.”
A frustrated Martin was whistled for two technical fouls after the turnover and the Turner County bench picked up another, and Wilkinson County’s Torrico Simmons hit 5-of-6 free throws with 1.5 seconds left to give the Warriors the eight-point victory in a thrilling state championship game.
“It almost leaves me speechless,” Wilkinson County coach Aaron Geter, Jr., said. “I am excited for our kids, our program, our county, our community, our school.
“The biggest thing I told them is that hard work pays off, regardless of what people say and what kind of glass ceilings they put over your head. When you go out there between the black lines you are the one who makes the difference.”
Wilkinson County, which previously knocked off No. 1 Calhoun County in the state semifinals, built a 13-point halftime lead and led by 11 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Rebels cut Wilkinson County’s lead to nine points with a Shaquil Baldwin layup on the opening possession of the fourth quarter, but the Warriors jumped back ahead by double digits and led by as many as 12 with 2:57 remaining.
Turner County proceeded to go on a 17-7 run in the next two minutes to cut Wilkinson County’s lead to two points.
With nine seconds left, Simmons missed 1-of-2 free throws to give Turner County a shot at a game-tying 3-pointer, but Martin’s turnover ended the Rebels’ inspiring comeback.
Despite the loss, Kellogg left the court proud of the Rebels’ deep run in the state tournament.
“We played a lot of young kids. We have four seniors who have been great leaders for us,” said Kellogg, referring to seniors Martin, Quan Williams, Antonio Graddic and Mailk Brown. “We fought hard and worked hard all year long. Even through the playoffs we were that team where people would say, ‘There are three or four teams that were better than Turner.’ We overcame all of that. We won the games we needed to win to get here, and we fought hard once we got here.”
Baldwin led Turner County with 18 points, while Graddic finished with 14 and Martin added 10. Simmons (18 points), Quantavious Jones (13) and Kareem Sanders (10) led Wilkinson County.
The Rebels were able to overcame a poor shooting night from the field (23-for-73), 3-point range (2-for-21) and the free throw line (16-for-39) to fight back, but five missed free throws from Turner County in the final 30 seconds helped Wilkinson County hold off the Rebels’ comeback.
“We are a very scrappy team, and we fought all year long and fought hard,” Kellogg said. “We have always been able to give ourselves a chance to win it. That’s all you can ask from your kids.”