HOMER — It seemed like a perfect recipe for the Banks County boys. They had the Region 8-2A final on their home court, where they had won five straight, and were playing in front of a raucous crowd.
But Elbert County turned the table on the Leopards.
The Blue Devils’ Ben Rucker drained a long 3-pointer to open the game and they never trailed, eventually holding off a furious fourth-quarter Banks County rally for a 79-73 win to grab their second region title in three seasons.
A hot Elbert County team, turnovers, and lethargy for three quarters doomed the Leopards.
“(Elbert) played really well. You have to give them credit,” Banks County coach Ryan Griffin said. “They hit shots that we wanted them to take that they hadn't hit most of the year. And we just did not play well until the fourth quarter.
“But we’re a team that has bounced back pretty fast from tough losses so I think we’ll be fine for the playoffs.”
The Blue Devils were red-hot on offense to start the game. They hit their first four shots, all 3-pointers, to jump out to a 12-2 lead in the first three minutes. They shot a blistering 9-of-12 in the first quarter, including going 5-of-5 on 3-pointers, and led 19-4 at one point before Banks County climbed back to within 23-13 on a 9-4 spurt to close out the period.
But sloppy ball handling by the Leopards led to 15 first-half turnovers and 14 points off turnovers for Elbert County. A Dakota Orr basket got Banks County to within 23-15 but a 14-4 Blue Devils run, fueled by three steals, gave them a stunning 37-19 lead with three minutes left in the half.
Banks County finally was able to put a run together as a Pierce Martin 3-pointer sparked a 7-0 spurt over the final 2:21 to get the Leopards within 37-26 by halftime.
But the third quarter was no better for Banks County. Elbert County outscored the Leopards 20-11 in the period, building a 53-30 advantage at one point, its largest of the game. A Bradley Lewis driving layup, however, sparked a 7-4 run to end the third and seemed to ignite the Leopards.
A Martin 3-pointer opened the fourth quarter and another Martin trey and three-point play moments later capped a 22-8 run to get the Leopards within 61-52 with 4:22 left. The lead remained around 10 until a Clay Gosnell basket with 49 seconds left to cut the lead to 72-65.
But Elbert County was able to hang on hitting 7-of-8 free throws over the final 45 seconds. The Blue Devils hit 14-of-16 from the line in the fourth quarter.
“We made (Elbert) hit the shots and they did,” Griffin said. “But our group never quits. I was proud of how they came back. But just many turnovers in the first half to help them build a lead. That was the key.”
Martin finished with 27 points, 18 coming in the fourth-quarter comeback, to lead Banks County. Gosnell had 18 and Garrett Pressley 11 for the Leopards.
Jaden Brown led Elbert County with 22 points, 8 coming in the first quarter blitz. Rucker finished with 18 and Trustin Allen had 13, 10 coming in the fourth quarter, including going 8-for-8 from the line, for the Blue Devils.