OAKWOOD -- Amidst all the chaos and excitement, Jeff Steele kept his cool.
Even after the heartbreak, the Johnson boys basketball coach remained stoic -- but he knew it could not last.
"When I get in my car to go home tonight I'm going to lose it, because that's how much these guys and this game mean, and that's how hard they played," Steele said. "They can hold their heads up high. The words for these guys are heart and character."
The Knights displayed enough of both to fill their own gym many times over on Tuesday night, fighting back from nine points down with 53 seconds remaining to force overtime. Yet Johnson could not find a way past Sandy Creek in the Class AAAA playoffs, ultimately falling 83-80 in Oakwood.
The outcome capped a historic season for Johnson, which won the Lanierland title for the first time since 1988, set a school record for victories at 24-6 and won back-to-back region titles for the first time.
And for much of Tuesday, it looked as if the history might keep rolling.
The Knights battled back from a double digit first half deficit and led by as many as six points in the second half only to watch Sandy Creek take control over the closing minutes of regulation. Yet Johnson would not let the Patriots close out the contest, as Drew Dunham, Carter Cagle and Justin Jones each came up with key baskets to complete a hair-raising comeback that threatened to lift the roof off the Johnson gym courtesy a raucous Knights crowd.
"That community was second to none tonight; they were incredible," Steele said. "And they were here because these guys brought attention to this school."
The Knights kept that attention focused for an extra four minutes when Dunham stole a Sandy Creek inbounds pass and fed Jones for a lay-up with 13 seconds remaining and a 70-70 scoreline. Jones was fouled on the play but could not sink the go-ahead free throw -- Johnson finished the game 16 of 24 from the free throw line -- and the game moved into overtime.
Once in the extra frame, Sandy Creek grabbed the initiative for good, taking a 78-72 lead on Christian Turner's two free throws with 1:39 remaining. But the Knights continued to push the visitors, Dunham draining a 3-pointer and James Hodges sinking a lay-up with 15 seconds left to pull within 82-80. Johnson had a look at sending the game into a second overtime, but a heavily-contested 3-point attempt from Jones just missed the target.
"A bounce here, a call there, and we win that game," Steele said. "And when these kids reflect back on this season, in time, they're going to be very proud of what they accomplished."
That includes a senior class that helped write much of that history -- including Hodges, Dunham, Cagle and Jones. And all four played key roles again on Tuesday.
Hodges led five Knights in double figures with a game-high 22 points, while Jones added 14. Cagle and Dunham each scored 11.
"Those guys have my heart; I feel like they're my sons and I mean that," Steele said.
Junior Ty Cockfield also added 12 points for Johnson; Rod English, also a junior, scored eight.
Christian Turner paced Sandy Creek with 17 points, while Brandon Lindsey and Javon Jackson each added 16 as the Patriots moved on to the state quarterfinals. Janavri Smith also chipped in with 15 and Jamal Lain added 12.
The Patriots put Johnson on its heels early, forcing eight first quarter turnovers en route to a 24-15 lead.
"We had some nerves there early, and you can't afford to do that against teams as good as that," said Steele, whose team finished with 23 turnovers for the contest.
Sandy Creek put together an 8-0 run over the end of the first quarter and start of the second -- until Cockfield and Jones scored back-to-back lay-ups. Jones then buried a 3-pointer to pull Johnson within 34-27 with 2:23 left in the half, sparking a 16-3 run that lasted until midway through the third quarter. By the time Jones scored another lay-up with 3:08 left in the third quarter, the Knights owned a 43-37 advantage.
Sandy Creek rebounded through a Lindsey 3-pointer and a Lain jumper and trailed 49-48 at the start of the fourth. Cagle sank three 3-pointers over the final eight minutes, as the opponents traded the lead three times -- until Sandy Creek pieced together a 10-2 push, including five points from Jackson for a 66-59 advantage with 1:29 remaining.
Yet six straight free throws from Dunham and another 3-pointer from Cagle kept Johnson close -- until Dunham and Jones combined to knot the game with 13 seconds remaining and send the contest into overtime and the crowd into delirium.
"I felt good about us even there late because I knew what kind of kids we had, and they proved me right," Steele said.