Sunday September 24th, 2017 11:41AM

Boys playoffs: Trojans roll back into semifinals, 51-44

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
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GAINESVILLE -- Ebo Smith could easily have talked about his 26 points, a third quarter performance that threatened to singe the wood beneath his feet or how St. Pius never found a way to slow the senior standout.

But after sparking his team to a 51-44 defeat of St. Pius X on Wednesday in Gainesville, Smith chose to focus on teammate Adam Kelly.

"Adam started everything tonight; he's the backbone to our defense, our best rebounder... He's a freak," Smith said.

Kelly indeed kick-started the North Hall offense in the second quarter of its Class AAA quarterfinal showdown. Stepping outside to drill two 3-pointers, the Trojans' forward staked his team to a lead it would never yield en route to its first state semifinal appearance since 2010.

Kelly, who finished with 12 points, also held his own against Golden Lions center Nick Harris, helping North Hall (28-3) to out-rebound the visitors 16-15 -- while allowing just three rebounds to St. Pius in a crucial fourth quarter in which the Trojans sank 8 of 10 free throws to seal the win.

"Kelly is in there fighting giants," Trojans coach Benjie Wood said. "And Ebo's a special player, but we have a bunch of special players on this team. I could go down the list about each one of them. We're a team, and the guys believe in each other and trust each other."

That trust has paid off with yet another opportunity for victory, as North Hall clinched a showdown with Johnson, Savannah at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Armstrong State in Savannah.

"This is so emotional," Smith said. "This was our goal all season, and when we lost the region crown people started doubting us. But we have proved a lot this season, and we proved something again tonight."

Smith proved to yet another team that he is among the best scorers in the state. After playing a cameo role in helping the Trojans to the 2010 Class AAA "Final Four," Smith dominated in the final high school quarterfinal appearance of his career, sinking 8 of 15 shots, including four 3-pointers.

After scoring nine points in a first half that saw North Hall inch ahead on Kelly's outside shooting, Griffin Olson's quickness around the basket (scoring seven of his 11 points) and defense -- the Trojans forced seven of St. Pius' 13 total turnovers in the quarter -- Smith caught fire just after the interval, drilling a 3-pointer to yield a 27-19 lead. The guard went on to score all but two of the Trojans' 14 points over the eight minute span -- another 3-pointer giving North Hall a 38-33 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.

Yet St. Pius refused to wilt under the pressure and pulled within 38-36 at the start of the fourth on a 3-pointer from Will Maguire -- one of his four on the night. The Golden Lions stayed within one basket of the Trojans for much of the quarter, but North Hall's free throw shooting, another 3-pointer from Smith and a short jumper from Avery Cagle proved too much for the visitors.

"Our kids are so resilient and mentally tough; we know we're going to stay in the game no matter what," Wood said. "Our seniors have been prepping for this for seven years, and they weren't going to let this moment get by them."

North Hall shot 50 percent from the field as a team, including a 75 percent performance from Kelly (3 of 4) and also finished 13 of 16 from the free throw line.

"I'm so happy for these kids," Wood said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing, and our seniors have now gotten to experience it twice."

Once North Hall established a lead in the second quarter a semifinal berth appeared well within reach, as Pius struggled to find a consistent answer on offense against the Trojans suffocating defense.

The Golden Lions did trade baskets with North Hall early, as Harris (16 points) and Daniel Crochet (eight points) found enough space inside to help Pius stay within 9-8. Meanwhile, Maguire (12 points) hit three 3-pointers in the second quarter -- all crucial after the Trojans began to pull away behind Kelly's treys and increased defensive pressure.

And while St. Pius pushed North Hall all the way, the Trojans' momentum simply proved too much.

"We're just going to keep fighting as long as we can," Wood said.

"I'm so excited," Smith added. "We all trust each other, and we're playing so well right now."
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