As the clock was winding down on the Class AA championship game, South Atlanta coach Mike Reddick went over to the bench and spoke to his seniors.
“He said, ‘Thank you. Thank you for the championship,’” senior Devonta Pullins said.
The long wait was over for the No. 1-ranked Hornets, who routed unranked Swainsboro 68-33 to win the AA title at McCamish Pavilion. It was the second title for South Atlanta, the last coming in 2009, and the completion of a mission to get over the hump.
“It’s a special group,” Reddick said. “They came in and we thought we’d win a couple with them. Now they’re moving out and moving forward and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
The group has come so close in the past, but couldn’t get over the top. They lost to Morgan County in the Elite Eight in 2015 and again to Morgan County in the Final Four in 2016. This time they weren’t stoppable, going 29-1 and winning their last 26 games.
“It means a lot,” Reddick said. “We’ve been relevant, ranking in the top 10 or No. 1 in our classification, 11 of last 16 years, but only had one state championship. That’s what we’ve been talking about all year. This year we have to finish.
“After early season loss, the guys bought in, they sacrificed their game. We’ve got guys who could average a lot more points but they sacrifice for each other, play for each other and it’s like a family. It means a lot for me to get it.”
The seniors made the presence known in the title game. Pullins had 20 points to lead the offense. Tyler Thornton had 11 points and 14 rebounds. Demontray Robers had a game-high 15 rebounds. The other senior contributors were Frank Bailey, Jordan Freeman, Acey Brown and Antonio Gay. Junior Jalen Stegall had 15 points and seven rebounds.
“We’ve been preparing for this season since the ninth grade – the ninth grade – maybe earlier,” Pullins said. “We knew we were going to get a ring and we just got one this season. We love it.”
The loss ended an emotional run for Swainsboro. The Tigers had dedicated the season to former coach Bobby Andews, who unexpectedly died last spring.
After a sloppy first quarter, which saw them lead 12-10, South Atlanta finally gained some momentum in the second period. The Hornets used a 10-0 run, capped by Pullins’ basket, to take a 23-11 lead and stretched it out to 36-22 at halftime.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Reddick said. “I knew they were playing with heavy hearts and had made some big comebacks. In the locker room at halftime we had to reset, refresh and refocus to come out with a different path.”
The Hornets pulled away for good when they began the second half with a 9-0 spurt. South Atlanta outscored Swainsboro 22-2 in the third period and led 58-24, meaning the “mercy rule” was invoked and the final quarter shortened to six minutes.
“The third quarter the defense picked up and we held them to two points,” Reddick said. “In the third quarter our bigs came down and rebounded well. That’s what happens when you’ve got good players. It has nothing to do with coaching, that’s just good players.”
Swainsboro (21-11) was led by Jaylan McKinney with 15 points.
Reddick now hopes the college recruiters will come by the school more often and take a look.
“We have great kids, great talent in the community,” Reddick said. “I’ll say it again, it’s not the coaches. I know a little bit about basketball, I’ve been at the school for 19 years, but I have very talented players and I want those college coaches to stop reading the scouting reports and come a recruit these guys because we have some talent at South Atlanta High School.”
Swainsboro (33): Eddie Roberts 5, Jamil Watkins 6, Jaylan McKinney 15, Jamal Watkins 3, K.J. McCoy 2, Japorre Wortham 1, Luwaski McCloud II 1.
South Atlanta (68): Dondre Barnes 8, Jalen Stegall 15, Devonta Pullins 20, Demontray Roberts 6, Tyler Thornton 11, Frank Bailey 4, Jordan Freeman 2, Acey Brown 2.