JEFFERSON — It was hard to tell that the Jefferson boys had just won their 11th straight game and advanced to their first Elite 8 since 2014 based on Kevin Morris’s face.
A long, deep rub into his eyes and an even longer exhale gave a different impression than the 65-57 score indicated after their win over Pierce County in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs at The Arena.
“We’ve had games where we’ve blown big leads and had some really ugly wins. This one was definitely ugly but at least we didn’t blow the lead this time,” Morris said.
The Dragons (20-7) came about as close as you can get, however. They had built a huge 22-point lead in the first half (28-6) after a pair of blistering runs in the opening 10 minutes led by Jacob Radaker and Malaki Starks that should have made for an easy night.
The Bears (22-7) chipped into that lead, however, cutting it down to 12 at one point before halftime. Jefferson used a quick start to the third quarter to rebuild it to 44-24.
Pierce County again responded closing to 52-43 to end the third period on an AJ Staten 3-pointer. The Bears continued the attack in the opening moments of the fourth quarter getting two more 3-pointers from Deon Bell. A pair of Bell free throws with 5:23 left in the game made it a slim, and shocking, 54-53 Jefferson lead.
“Our scouting report (on Pierce) said they weren’t a big shooting team but they hit some big shots and never quit,” Morris said. “But we also kind of relaxed a little with the big lead. Early in the season, we lose this game. I’m proud of how the guys responded.”
Respond they did, and in a clutch way. Jefferson’s Kam Robinson, Starks, and Owen Parker hit 7-of-8 free throws over the final 5:13 and a swarming defense forced five turnovers and held Pierce County to just one field goal over the final six minutes to pull away.
Jefferson now will move on to play host to the Greater Atlanta Christian-Monroe winner on Wednesday in next week’s quarterfinals. A time has not been set as of yet.
Jefferson trailed just once at 2-0 on a Quavien Bell basket to open the game for the Bears but a Spencer Darby 3-pointer 30 seconds later gave Jefferson the lead for good. That sparked what turned into a 14-2 run highlighted by a pair of Radaker baskets and capped by a Daniel Parker bucket for a 14-4 lead.
The Dragons kept up the barrage with a 14-2 spurt into the second quarter for the 28-6 lead after a Starks steal and layup. The Bears rallied with a 17-7 run to close within 35-23 but Jefferson eventually took a 39-24 lead into halftime.
Radaker finished with 14 points to lead Jefferson. Starks added 12 points, Owen Parker had 11, and Robinson scored 8, with 6 of those coming in the second half.
Pierce County was paced by Staten with a game-high 17 points, including three 3-pointers. Deon Bell had 15 points and Zay Plummer 11 for the Bears.
JEFFERSON GIRLS 64,
PIERCE COUNTY 33
The Lady Dragons advanced to their fourth straight Elite 8 with an impressive win over the Lady Bears Wednesday in the Class 3A playoffs.
With the win, Jefferson (25-2) moved to a perfect 18-0 vs. Class 3A teams this season and leads the classification in wins.
Courtney Kidd set the tone with a 3-pointer just moments into the game as Jefferson never trailed. But it was the Lady Dragons’ defense that was the real difference.
Jefferson forced 27 Pierce County turnovers for the game with a suffocating press, including five steals in the first quarter, to run out to a quick 15-6 lead. An Ellie Kinlaw 3-pointer and then a Chloe Hiatt stick-back basket gave Jefferson a 27-12 lead before they took a 31-17 advantage into halftime.
Jefferson coach Greg Brown said that was the tone they wanted to set.
“I thought our defensive effort was really good. We stuck to our game plan and that was a key,” Brown said. “This is a fun group to watch. They come to work every day.”
The Lady Dragons never gave the Bears a chance to mount a second-half rally. They opened the third quarter with a 10-0 run to push the lead to 41-17 and got a 6:00 fourth-quarter clock taking a 52-22 lead.
Deshona Gaither led Jefferson with 16 points. Kinlaw added 13 and Kidd had 8 for the Lady Dragons.
It was the eighth straight win for Jefferson, which will now play host to the Greater Atlanta Christian-Monroe winner in next week’s quarterfinals.
“We played GAC last year so we know a little about them but really two athletic teams,” Brown said. “We’ll have to play well but we’re glad we’ll get to be at home.”
Pierce County girls (23-6) finished the season with a school-record in wins but still has never advanced past the second round in program history. The Lady Bears were 9-1 on the road coming into Wednesday’s showdown but was no match for the depth and firepower of Jefferson.
The Lady Dragons had eight players score with five scoring 6 or more points. On defense, they held Pierce County to nearly 20 points under its season average.