HOMER — The Elite 8 for the Banks County boys has been like Ahab’s Great White Whale. Almost always within sight but almost always just out of reach.
Thursday night in front of a raucous crowd at the Banks County gym, the Leopards finally harpooned their quarry, holding off No. 8 Butler out of Augusta, 61-58, to advance to the Elite 8 in Class 2A for the first time since 1995.
Four times in the previous five years Banks County had been in the exact same spot. Each time the Leopards come up empty.
Not this time. But it didn’t come easy. The Leopards (25-4) raced out to a 32-8 first half lead only to see the Bulldogs (19-7) storm back in the second half to get within one point twice in the final two minutes.
“That’s a great team and for us to be able to beat a team like that is just tremendous for our guys,” Banks County coach Mike Cleveland said. “Our crowd was huge for us and we can’t thank them enough for helping us.”
A pair of Carl Cleveland free throws with 22.5 seconds gave the Leopards their final cushion but they had to endure three Butler misses from 3-point range and one turnover in a wild sequence over the final 22 seconds.
“Even with the big lead I never felt comfortable,” Cleveland said. “I thought we came out and attacked them inside, which I noticed on film no one really did. The guys did a great job of executing and we shot lights out.”
The Leopards never trailed. Carl Cleveland scored on a post-up to open the game, the Bulldogs tied it moments later, and then Banks County exploded.
Carl Cleveland scored on a jumper, Pierce Martin drained a 3-pointer, Clay Gosnell hit a pair of free throws, Dakota Orr scored on a fast break, Martin hit another 3-pointer, and Cleveland capped a blistering 16-0 run for an 18-2 lead with just over two minutes left in the first quarter.
While Banks County was scorching the nets, the Bulldogs were ice cold. They missed their first 12 3-point shots -- Trayveyon Perry hit their only one at the buzzer to end the half -- and were just 3 for their first 15 shots overall as Banks County increased its lead to 32-8 on a Martin stick-back basket midway through the second quarter.
The Bulldogs chipped away over the final five minutes using a quick, aggressive full court press to close out the half on a 15-7 run.
Cleveland opened the second half like the first with a basket inside for a 41-23 lead. But Butler turned on its defensive pressure forcing three Banks County turnovers to spark a 14-7 run to get within 48-37 on a Ronnie Striggles basket. The Leopards eventually took a 54-41 advantage into the final period. The Bulldogs, however, were just getting started.
Striggles converted back-to-back fast break baskets and Adrian Hatcher drained his second 3-pointer of the half to get the Bulldogs within 56-48. Another Hatcher trey, a Richard Visitacion 3-pointer a minute later, and a Kedar Bodie bucket off a feed from Striggles got Butler within 57-56 with 2:43 left.
The Banks defense then clamped down. Butler missed two contested shots with a chance to take the lead and the Leopards held Butler to just one field goal over the final two minutes. A Garrett Pressley layup pushed the lead to 59-56, Bodie answered with a basket a minute later and then Cleveland sealed it.
“I told the guys at halftime (Butler) was going to make a run and they did,” Cleveland said. “The guys played excellent defense for most of the way. I just can’t say enough how proud I am of them. We’ve been chasing this for nine years since I’ve been here. I think this shows that Banks County can play with the best teams in the state.”
Carl Cleveland finished with a game-high 26 points but most of his damage came in the paint and at the line as the Leopards altered their usual 3-point attack. Gosnell added 15 points and Martin had 9 for Banks County.
The quick, shifty Striggles had 23 points to lead Butler, with 15 coming in the second half. Bodie finished with 11 points while Perry, the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer, was held scoreless in the second half to finish with 9.
Banks County now moves on to face Chattooga at home on Wednesday. Game time is set for 6:30 p.m.
“Our crowd is great and is the best environment in north Georgia and I think they can be a huge factor for us,” Cleveland said. “Our guys are very confident playing at home. We don’t care who it is. We’re just glad to still be a part of it.”