Sunday October 4th, 2015 7:28AM

Lanierland: Knights reach finals for first time since '08

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
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GAINESVILLE -- After playing West Hall to a standstill in the first half, the Johnson boys finally found a way to attack the Spartans zone.

The Knights used a 12-2 run in the first four minutes of the third quarter with Drew Dunham and Ty Cockfield exploiting the open seams with six combined assists and then held off a late rally by West Hall to take a 76-62 win in the semifinals of the Lanierland Tournament Friday at the North Hall gym.

It's the first finals appearance for the Knights since 2008 and coach Jeff Steele said they are looking forward to the opportunity of playing for their first title since 1988.

"We're thrilled about being in the finals," Steele said. "That was our goal and now we want to try and win it. But we'll need a little better effort than we had (Friday)."

Johnson will take on North Hall, which beat Gainesville in overtime in the other semifinal, Saturday at North Hall at 7:30 p.m. for the championship.

Johnson would use that initial spark in the opening minutes of the second half to put together a 22-6 run for a 52-36 lead late in the third quarter. The Knights used what Steele had said would be the key for them to have a shot at the finals: rebounding and defense.

Johnson outrebounded the Spartans 30-17 for the game and forced 17 turnovers, six in the pivotal third quarter.

"We talked at halftime about attacking their zone and that gave us some second-chance opportunities and I thought our defense did a real good job making some plays at the beginning of the half," Steele said. "But we let them back in the game. Playing with a big lead is something we have to do better."

After Johnson built the big lead, the Spartans began to chip away. West Hall cut it to 52-42 on a basket by Hunter Atkinson but the Knights answered with six straight points on three consecutive assists by Cockfield.

The Spartans would make one last charge behind the shooting of Grayson Tyler. The junior, who finished with a game-high 23 points on a season-high seven 3-pointers, would hit two consecutive treys to cut the lead to 72-62 with 45 seconds left but they could get no closer.

Cockfield led Johnson (10-1) with 19 points and added six assists. Montrell McKensey keep his double-double streak alive with 18 points and 15 rebounds and added three blocks. He has posted a double-double in every game this season.

Rod English had 14 points, Carter Cagle had 12 points and five rebounds, and James Hodges had 11 points -- all in the second half -- for the Knights.

Tyswon Cantrell had 19 points and six rebounds and Atkinson finished with 14 points for West Hall (6-5).

The first half was a complete standstill. There were 10 lead changes and five ties in the opening 16 minutes, which ended in a 30-30 tie.

Johnson took the first lead on a McKensey basket but West Hall answered with a 6-2 run on a pair of 3-pointers. The Knights would reclaim the lead on four consecutive baskets by Cockfield for a 12-9 lead.

West Hall came right back with two fastbreak baskets for a 13-12 lead but Johnson would open the biggest lead of the half, 23-16, with a 9-3 run midway through the second quarter behind its defense. The Knights forced three straight turnovers and held the Spartans to just three rebounds to that point.

But the Spartans stormed back using their own defensive pressure. They went on an 11-2 run behind two steals and four offensive rebounds to retake the lead 27-25 on a Cantrell stickback.

Johnson retook the lead 30-27 on a three-point play by Cockfield with 20 seconds left in the half but West Hall's Tyler drained his third 3-pointer of the half with 10 seconds left to tie the game.
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