MACON — For nearly 24 minutes, Jefferson, playing the role of David, had the Goliath of Pace Academy not just on the ropes, but ready to go down.
But with one big blow, the No. 1-ranked Knights got the counter-punch they needed to eventually knock out the Dragons in a closer-than-the-score-indicated 48-35 victory Thursday in the Class 3A championship game at The Macon Centreplex.
A near-perfect game plan early on by the Dragons (22-8) had them poised to pull off what would have been the biggest upset of the four-day championship weekend.
“I thought we did a great job on defense and boxing out on rebounding early on,” Jefferson coach Kevin Morris said. “But we didn’t do a very good job of handling their 3-2 zone (later in the game) and got caught standing around a little bit instead of attacking the basket. But you have to give (Pace Academy) Coach (Sharman) White credit for making some good adjustments.”
The Dragons came out ready to show that they weren’t just glad to be in their first-ever state championship game. They jumped on the Knights in the opening minutes and never trailed in the first half.
Jefferson used a tremendous first quarter defensive effort to run out to a stunning 9-0 lead in the first four minutes. They held the Knights to 1-of-9 shooting and outrebounded Pace Academy 12-3 as well. Meanwhile, Owen Parker poured in 5 points as the Dragons hit 6-of-11 shots for a 13-3 lead after the first eight minutes.
Pace surged in the opening three minutes of the second quarter behind Cole Middleton, who poured in all eight points in an 8-1 run to pull within 14-11. But a Spencer Darby 3-pointer ended a four minute drought to push Jefferson’s lead back to 17-11 and a Owen Parker layup gave the Dragons an eventual 20-13 halftime lead.
The Knights, however, began to make their move to start the third quarter. They opened with a 6-0 run to get within 20-19 but a pair of Malaki Starks fastbreak baskets pushed the Dragons lead back to 26-21.
Then little-used George Adams changed everything.
The senior Knights’ guard, who played just four minutes in the first half, unloaded with nine straight points to highlight a 15-2 run. Adams, who averaged just over three points a game on the season, converted a crucial four-point play with 47 seconds left in the third quarter to give Pace Academy a 29-28 lead, its first of the game.
Adams opened the fourth quarter with a running floater, added another 3-pointer, and Middleton capped the decisive run with a dunk for a 36-28 lead. The Dragons never recovered.
“That (four-point) play was big because instead of maybe taking a lead into the fourth quarter we went down one,” Morris said. “That was big.”
The Dragons trimmed the lead to 36-31 moments later on a Damien Lester 3-pointer but Pace Academy hit 8-of-12 free throws over the final four minutes to pull away.
Jefferson struggled to shoot the Knights out of their zone going just 2-of-14 from 3-point range for the game. Darby hit the Dragons first attempt and they hit just one of their final 13, many coming in the fourth quarter as they tried to shoot their way back into it.
Morris, despite the disappointing finish to a season that saw the Dragons start just 7-6 and then roll into their first-ever finals with a 13-game win streak, was more smiles than dejection afterwards.
“I’m just proud of these dang kids,” he said. “They played their butts off the entire game. We also can’t thank the Jefferson community enough. The bank robbers had a field day in Jefferson because everyone [was] here.”
Owen Parker was the only Jefferson player to score in double figures with 11 points. Dragons’ leading scorer Jacob Radaker, matched up head-to-head with the Knights’ Cole Middleton, managed just 5 points. Starks finished with 8 points for the Dragons.
Middleton finished with 15 points to lead Pace Academy. Matthew Cleveland, the Knights leading scorer, was held to just 10 points by Radaker and Kadin Bailey, who had two blocks in limited action.