Whitefield (28-3) will now face Athens Christian (30-2) in Saturday’s state championship game, with eyes on bringing home the program’s third state title.
Athens Christian defeated Turner County 46-44 on a pair of free throws with 0.5 seconds left. The Eagles have already defeated Mount Paran Christian in the second round, defending state champion Wilkinson County in the elite eight and they have won all four of their playoff games by a combined total of 10 points.
Whitefield coach Tyrone Johnson knows the Wolfpack will have a different kind of game on their hands Saturday as Athens Christian will try to control the ball and shorten the game.
“It’s going to be a battle of wills,” Johnson said. “They have an agenda. They are going to want to control tempo, and whichever team is able to break that will should win the game. The state championship game will come down to mental toughness.”
As did the semifinal against Lanier County.
The Wolfpack led 62-49 heading to the final quarter, but the Bulldogs (26-5) scored the first eight points to cut the lead to five with just under 4 minutes to play. Lanier County had the momentum and on the next possession, the Bulldogs forced a turnover and got the ball to Emmanuel Ezoua. Ezoua was all alone on Whitefield’s end of the court, but instead of completing an emphatic dunk that would have brought Lanier County within 3, the ball caromed off the back of the iron.
Ezoua, who led the Bulldogs with 27 points, got the rebound, but he followed it by missing a layup.
Whitefield corralled the rebound and got the ball to Gaines, who slashed his way to the basket for a layup and was fouled with 3:15 to play. The free throw put the Wolfpack back up seven and reminded Johnson of a game from a couple of years earlier.
“I had a player who missed a dunk against Wesleyan one year (in the final four) when we were down five. It turned out to be a five-point swing when they hit a 3-pointer on the other end and it made the difference in the game.”
The Georgia-bound Gaines made sure Whitefield took advantage, too. The next two times down the floor, he hit a jumper from the baseline, and then a bank shot from underneath the basket to put the game away.
“Everybody knows he’s our go-to player,” Johnson said. “With that kind of talent, we expect him to play that way, and he really stepped up.”
The moments people will remember years from now when they look back on this game were a far cry from the rest of the action on the floor.
Whitefield got off to a slow start, and turnovers and missed opportunities allowed Lanier County to grab a 10-5 lead 3 minutes into the game.
But as sloppy as the Wolfpack might have been, the Bulldogs were worse. By the fourth minute, Lanier County’s 6-foot-6 center, Junior Gnonkonde, picked up three quick fouls and had to take a seat on the bench for much of the remainder of the half. His absence opened the middle for the Wolfpack’s Eric Lockett, Lorenzo Carter and Gaines to work underneath and drive to the basket.
In the first half, the teams combined for 23 turnovers, 24 fouls and shot 21 of 36 from the free throw line.
Despite the ragged play, Whitfield outscored the Bulldogs 16-7 over the rest of the quarter, capped by Gaines’ back-to back 3-pointers including a half-court heave at the buzzer.
Gaines finished the first half with 21 points and ended the night with 30. Carter and Jordan Coar each finished with 14.
The Wolfpack led 40-37 at the break and began the second half by playing their best basketball of the night. They opened the third quarter on a 16-4 run in the first 4 minutes to build a 15-point lead. They would match that advantage two other times, the last coming at 62-47 just before the end of the third quarter.