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Friday February 12th, 2016 11:15AM

7-AAA tournament: Vikings fend off West Hall charge, clinch state berth

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
GAINESVILLE -- Brian Edwards wasn't about to let his senior campaign, a state playoff berth and a chance at redemption slip away on Tuesday.

After watching West Hall claw its way back from an 18-point deficit in the first round of the Region 7-AAA tournament, the East Hall senior ducked his head, slashed to the rim and came up with two of the biggest baskets of the season to help the Vikings hold on for a 63-53 defeat of the Spartans in Gainesville.

"I knew we needed a basket, and I was willing to do whatever it took," said Edwards, who absorbed a hard foul on the first score and fought off a West Hall defender to add a putback for the second. "We wanted to get back state, and we had to have this game."

The victory clinched a state berth for East Hall (12-14) and set up a semifinal showdown with North Hall on Friday in Gainesville.

That outcome looked a lock just minutes into Tuesday's contest, as the Vikings stormed to a 24-6 lead in the first quarter. But West Hall fought back, outscoring the Vikings 31-18 over the second and third quarters, and looked set to gain the upper hand -- until Edwards stepped up.

The senior put up five straight points, including a three-point play with 6:19 remaining, to turn the tide of a see-saw game for good. The spurt answered a 20-7 run from West Hall that saw the Spartans pull within 46-45 on Hunter Atkinson's lay-in, and while West Hall closed to 51-48 on Atkinson's own three-point play, Edwards' charge provided just enough breathing room.

"He just took over; he played like a senior, a leader is supposed to play," East Hall coach Joe Dix said of Edwards. "That was just crucial for us. He is a warrior, and you can never question his effort and desire."

Edwards finished with a team-high 16 points, seven of which came in the fourth quarter. Jacquen Hopkins and Tyler Brown also came up with key late baskets, finishing with nine and 10 points, respectively. Daniel McCravy also proved solid throughout for the Vikings, scoring 10.

West Hall's Atkinson put up a game-high 17, while Tyswon Cantrell added 11 and Grayson Tyler nine.

Hopkins and Hayden Chapman each buried early 3-pointers, which combined with a swarming Vikings defense to put the Spartans on their heels from the outset. Cold shooting also hurt West Hall, which sank just three field goals in the first quarter en route to a 29-10 deficit.

Yet the Spartans began to cut into the deficit in the second quarter, Cantrell and Esteban Ulloa providing the spark for a 10-4 run that helped haul West Hall within 35-25 at the half.

East Hall opened the third quarter with back-to-back buckets from McCravy and Hopkins, but the push proved shortlived, and West Hall charged back into the contest, pulling within 44-40 on Xavier Johnson's lay-in with 1:20 left in the period. The Spartans continued their charge into the fourth, Cantrell and Atkinson scoring back-to-back baskets to pull within one point. But it was as close as they would get.

East Hall's finish ensures the Vikings are back in the Class AAA postseason, where they hope to put the lessons of a roller-coaster season to good use.

"We've grown a lot this season, a couple of months ago, we might have thrown that lead away," Dix said. "We can throw the records out the window now."

Indeed, East Hall will look to Friday's semifinal showdown with North Hall (at 8:30 p.m.) as another chance against a team it has lost to twice by a combined eight points -- including in overtime -- this season.

"We feel like, at this point, it's 'why not us,' " Edwards said.

West Hall's season is now complete.
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