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Lanierland: North Hall boys take 2nd title in four years

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
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GAINESVILLE -- Johnson coach Jeff Steele wanted his first Lanierland title bad.

The problem for Steele and the Knights was that North Hall's Ethan Smith wanted it more.

Smith answered two late charges by the Knights in the final two minutes to help propel the Trojans to a nail-biting 48-47 win Saturday night in the finals at a packed North Hall gym.

Smith, a senior, would finish with 15 points just one day removed from blistering Gainesville with a career-high 39, and was named the tournament MVP for his efforts. It was the second title for Smith and coach Benjie Wood.

"The first one was nice but this one means a little more because it's my last one and we really wanted to win it," Smith said. "This was one of our goals and it means a lot."

After Johnson had erased a nine-point North Hall lead with an 11-2 run, capped by a 3-pointer from Rod English with 2:06 left, Smith hit a jumper 10 seconds later to reclaim the lead and then made two defensive plays in the final 30 seconds to help preserve the win.

"Ethan is a special player and he just does whatever we need from him to help win games," Wood said. "We just tried to stay composed at the end."

For Steele, who was looking for his first championship as coach in his 14th season with the Knights, it was a another gut-wrenching loss. Steele and the Knights fell short in the 2005 and 2008 finals.

After Smith's basket gave North Hall a 48-46 lead, the Knights had five chances to tie or take the lead over the next minute. They would miss two front-end of one-and-one attempts in the final 25 seconds and then make a free throw with 2.8 seconds left when they were trying to miss and set up a tip-chance to tie the game.

"We wanted this bad as a team, not just me," Steele said. "But we didn't execute down the stretch. North Hall is a savvy, smart team and you can't make mistakes and beat them.

"Both games we have lost we did not shoot free throws well. In big-pressure, close games, you have to make free throws. But I am extremely proud of our guys for fighting back when they weren't playing their best."

The Knights, who sport just one upperclassman, looked nervous to start the game and the experienced Trojans took advantage with a 12-3 run to open the game.

The Knights finally found their legs in the final moments of the first quarter and rallied to within 12-10 early in the second quarter. But North Hall would build a 26-20 halftime lead and Johnson would not get closer until the final minutes of the game.

Johnson was outrebounded 28-17 and hit just 6-of-16 free throws for the game.

"I think we were a little nervous to start but we needed to experience this kind of an atmosphere," Steele said. "I think they finally settled down in the second quarter and then decided that they were good enough to win in the fourth quarter. Despite the stats, I thought we did enough to win the game. North Hall was just a little better at the end."

North Hall would push its lead to 42-32 early in the fourth quarter on an Adam Kelly basket with 6:22 left. But English got hot for the Knights.

English would convert a three-point play and then bank in a 3-pointer a minute later to pull to within 44-40 with 3:56 left. Johnson's Montrell McKensey would convert another three-point play and then English drained another 3-pointer to tie the game at 46 with 2:06 left.

But the Knights could not complete the comeback.

English finished with 13 points to lead Johnson (10-2). McKensey would finish with 11 points but his 11-game double-double streak came to an end as he had just eight rebounds.

Kelly would lead North Hall (8-1) with 19 points and had five rebounds. Wood said his defensive effort on McKensey may have been even more valuable.

"Adam did a tremendous job (guarding McKensey)," Wood said. "Montrell is a great player and we asked Adam to take on that responsibility. He just does whatever we ask of him."

In the consolation games, Gainesville beat West Hall 65-57 in the third-place game. The Elephants-Spartans used an 8-0 in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter to pull away after the game was back-and-forth virtually the entire game.

Deshaun Watson led Gainesville with 20 points. Shaquan Cantrell added 18 and Luke Moore and Chase England had 10 apiece for the Red Elephants (2-6).

West Hall (6-6) was paced by 16 points from Deandre Peoples. Tyswon Cantrell had 14 points for the Spartans.

In the fifth-place game, East Hall pulled away late to beat Lakeview Academy while Flowery Branch beat Chestatee 72-60 in the seventh-place game.
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