MURRAYVILLE -- North Hall's Ethan Smith didn't start the game against East Hall. But he certainly helped finish it Friday night in the semifinals of the Region 7-AAA tournament.
The senior, who suffered a concussion last week in the regular season finale against Buford, was cleared to play just hours before the game and ignited a ferocious second half rally to propel the Trojans to a 69-54 win at the North Hall gym.
The win moved North Hall into Saturday's final against Buford, who advanced with a 56-30 win over Dawson County in the other semifinal. Tip-off is slated for 7:30 p.m. at North Hall.
Smith missed the Trojans' first round win over Fannin County on Tuesday but was given clearance for Friday's semifinal game at 3:30 p.m. It was welcome news for North Hall coach Benjie Wood, who decided to not start Smith to check him out one last time during warm-ups.
"You always want your best player but health comes first. We were glad he could play," he said. "But you don't expect a game like that after what he has been through. I know one thing. I'll never doubt Ebo Smith again."
With the Trojans trailing 40-31 midway through the third quarter, Smith ripped off five straight points and then capped a 12-4 run to close out the period with two free throws to pull North Hall within 44-43. Smith then hit back-to-back 3-pointers to open the fourth quarter and assisted on the first of two consecutive 3-pointers by Griffin Olson in a three minute span to give the Trojans 55-44 lead.
The Vikings never recovered.
"Ebo did the same thing the last time we played them and against Buford last week," Wood said. "The seniors just decided they didn't want to lose. The beginning of the fourth quarter definitely turned the game around for us."
Smith would finish with a game-high 24 points, 15 coming in the decisive 30-10 run that would conclude with North Hall leading 61-50. Friday's game was eerily similar to the last meeting between the two teams when East Hall let a 15-point second half lead slip away in an 88-83 loss.
As was the case then, history repeated itself as the defense played a key role in the Trojans reversal of fortunes.
"We didn't guard well in the first half and for part of the third quarter," Wood said. "When we started guarding better in the second half things turned around for us. Defense is the key for us."
The Trojans hope that history will repeat itself against Buford on Saturday. North Hall used a stellar defensive performance and several runs to take down Buford on the road last week.
"That was last week. It's always a confidence boost when you know you can beat someone but what happened last week really has no bearing on (Saturday's) game," Wood said."It will be another monumental challenge for us."
East Hall came out strong from the beginning. After falling behind 2-0 on an Adam Kelly basket for North Hall, the Vikings went on a 9-0 run to grab a lead they would not relinquish until North Hall's third quarter run.
Hayden Chapman would drain a long 3-pointer to give them a 3-2 lead and later in the quarter would hit another 3-pointer to start a 7-3 run to give East Hall a 20-13 lead at the end of the period. The Vikings would open the second quarter with a 5-2 run for a 25-15 lead midway through the second quarter.
North Hall would close the gap to 31-26 in the final minute of the first half on two Avery Cagle free throws but Brian Edwards gave East Hall a 33-26 halftime lead with a jumper with five seconds left.
The Vikings would build the lead to 40-31 on a Triston Cooper 3-pointer with 4:55 left in the third quarter.
Olson would finish with 18 points and Cagle added 10 for North Hall.
Edwards finished with 22 points to lead East Hall. Kevan Davenport added eight for the Vikings.
East Hall will take on Dawson County at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at North Hall in the third place game.