The Hawks will finally get to live the experience after punching their ticket to the state semifinals with a 57-46 victory Wednesday in the Class AAAAAA quarterfinals in a game that was close until late in the fourth quarter.
“It feels great to get there,” Hillgrove coach Ed Morris said, who has taken his Hawks to the state playoffs each of the last six seasons. “In all honesty, and I told our kids this, when I sat down to pray each night this season I just gave this team to God. It’s all Him. I’m not a good enough coach to do this. I am amazed at what he has down with this team.
“I’m also so proud for our seniors. They have led this team from day one. They’ve wanted this, and I’m so happy for them to get the opportunity to play at Georgia Tech.”
That is where the semifinals will be played Saturday. The fifth-ranked Hawks (27-4) will play Wheeler in the 5:30 p.m. semifinal game for a spot in the state championship game on March 9 in Macon. Wheeler defeated Peachtree Ridge 60-45 in its quarterfinal game.
With Wednesday’s victory over the Pirates (22-8), Hillgrove also tied the program’s single-season record for victories with its 27th of the season. The 2008-2009 team previously won that many games in a season that ended in the Sweet 16.
The following year, the Hawks won 24 games while reaching the Elite Eight for the first time, only to lose 47-45 to Mays in the Class AAAA state quarterfinals.
“That was a heartbreaker for our kids,” Morris said as he talked about this year’s team getting the program to the next stage of the state tournament. “Tonight, when this game was close, this group just came over to the bench and said we’re not going home. They’re resilient and it showed.”
On Wednesday, it was the Pirates who felt the pain of losing a game short of the Final Four. They also were looking to make their first trip to the semifinals after advancing to Elite Eight for the first time since the 1982 season when the state field was smaller than now.
Brunswick, the No. 2 seed from Region 1AAAAAA, had won 11 of its previous 13 games including two state tournament wins, which was the most in school history.
“We played hard. It just didn’t go our way tonight,” said Brunswick coach Chris Turner, who has guided the Pirates to three straight 20-win seasons. “They got hot and we didn’t. My hat’s off to them. They hit some big shots and played great defense. They’re a very good defensive team.”
It was Hillgrove junior B.J. Brown who hit the biggest shots of the game for the Hawks in the fourth quarter to help them break open a tight game. With the score tied 40-40 at the five minute mark, Brown scored the game’s next seven points to give the Hawks a 47-40 lead with 2:43 to go.
Brown broke a 2-minute scoreless drought by both teams with a long jumper for a 42-40 lead. He buried another long jumper on Hillgrove’s next possession after a Brunswick turnover for a 44-40 lead. But, it was his 3-pointer from the top of the arch with 2:43 to go that gave Hillgrove a 47-40 cushion and broke open the game.
Brown made another bucket before the game ended to score nine points in the fourth quarter and finish with 15 for the night.
“I just stay focused,” said Brown, who left the game in the first half with an injured neck. “I came back and tried to make sure and finish the job to help my team win.”
Brunswick finally scored again with 2:24 to go to get within 47-42, but the Hawks scored the next five points for a 52-42 advantage as the game reached the final minute. Hillgrove would go up by 57-44 in the final seconds before winning by the 11-point margin.
“We been able to go on runs like this late,” Morris said. “Again, it’s the resiliency and toughness of our kids.”
Brunswick led 12-7 early before the Hawks caught them for a 12-12 tie after the opening eight minutes. Hillgrove went up in the second quarter and took a 23-20 lead into halftime.
Twice in the third period, Hillgrove went up by six but Brunswick wouldn’t go away, pulling within 38-34 before the end of the period. The Pirates tied the game early in the fourth quarter, but could never get the lead again.
Kyle Castlin, who led the Hawks with a game-high 18 points, said Hillgrove was prepared for a battle to the finish.
“We’ve got great chemistry,” the junior said. “We play together and everyone has a role. We’re confident and we’re just having fun.”
Keith Ray added 10 points for Hillgrove.
Marquice Jones led Brunswick with 17 points, but was the team’s only player to score in double figures.