The Thomas County Central gym reeked of heartbreak and missed opportunities after both Yellow Jackets squads dropped their region play-in games to visiting Hardaway on Tuesday.
The Central boys jumped out to a 12-4 lead in the first quarter and maintained a 20-0 advantage at the half before the Hardaway defense held the Yellow Jackets to just four points in the third and ran away with a 45-36 win.
“We just went flat overall,” boys coach Chad Ward said of his team’s second half performance. “We didn’t have the spark we did to start off the game and just couldn’t overcome some of the miscues we had. That kind of put us in a hole that was a little too deep at the end."
Hardaway guard Justin Crawford stole the show with game high 21 points, including 15 in the Hawks’ runaway second half.
“We just improved our defense; we had to get more movement,” Crawford said. “We got pretty confident after that. As you saw, we were struggling at first. But coach broke everything down [at halftime] and that helped us a lot.”
Ward said his gameplan for Tuesday’s contest consisted of a moderate tempo approach with emphasis on post play. It contrasted from the team’s recent outings, where the Yellow Jackets were hitting three pointers like they belonged in this weekend’s NBA contest.
Central strayed heavily from beyond the arc on Tuesday, connecting for just six. And by the fourth quarter, much of the deep shots were heaved in desperation.
“We had to try and make an adjustment and go to a quicker game to fight our way back in,” Ward said. “We knew we couldn’t afford to play that type of game towards the end yet that’s what we ended up doing.”
Tuesday’s loss was Central’s first since Jan. 24; it was riding a four-game winning streak heading into the game. Hardaway now heads to Bainbridge as the fifth seed, where it face No. 1 Bainbridge on Friday.
For the girls, it was another sour case of missed opportunities.
Hardaway led 39-37 with five minutes to go, but the daunting free throw line reared again and held the Lady Yellow Jackets to a mere five of 21 shots.
“That’s a never ending struggle,” girls coach Deatrice Hose said. “Every year, it’s free throws.”
Hose added the toughest part of Tuesday’s loss is knowing that this was a game Central could’ve had. The contest featured a combined nine lead changes and ties, and was within two points for almost the entirety of the second half. Hardaway then built momentum off a discounted Central free throw when Erica Harvey stepped over the line and ballooned their lead to 10 before securing a 55-47 victory.
“I think we kind of just got mis-communicated on defense after that,” said Hose while acknowledging she thought Harvey’s overstep was the turning point with just under three minutes to go. “They went into a stalling and we just had to step up on defense and force turnovers.”
Hose gameplanned for a 32-minute clash and employed an aggressive transition offense with moderate post play. And it was working for the bulk of the game until layups seemingly wouldn’t fall in the third quarter. Hose said physicality played a factor: the teams combined for 41 fouls, including 26 in the second half.
“It was a battle and we knew that coming in,” Hose said. “They did have some strong post players down low, but I think our post kind of rushed it a little bit. And when they did make plays, they just couldn’t get those layups to fall.”