Morgan's boys basketball team is the 2018-19 Class AAA state champion
The Bulldogs are back on top.
Morgan County’s boys basketball team defeated Hart County last Thursday night, 68-54, to win the 2018-19 GHSA Class AAA state championship. The win gave the Bulldogs their third title in the last six years and their first since the 2015-16 season.
A few players on this year’s roster were part of Morgan’s last championship game – a 54-46 loss to Pace Academy two years ago. Head coach Jamond Sims said those players were determined to outdo that effort.
“The guys wanted it, not just for themselves but they wanted it for the community,” Sims said. “When we lost the state championship game to Pace, everybody was hurting. There were fans and family members that took the loss harder than the kids did. The kids realized they were playing for more than just themselves.”
In order to win their latest title, the Bulldogs had to go through a familiar opponent.
Hart and Morgan are each part of Region 8-AAA. The Bulldogs from Madison swept the Bulldogs from Hartwell this season, beating them 70-53 and 66-55.
Morgan swept Hart the past seven years, too, as the Bulldogs went on their run of eight consecutive region championships, capped off by this year’s region title.
Even though Hart was a well-known challenge for Morgan, its players did not loaf before and during Thursday’s game, held at the Macon Centreplex.
“We left school a little early because [Sims] wanted us to get focused early,” senior Tyrin Lawrence said. “We got down here, got some shots up and stuff and our mindset was, 'Don't underestimate them,' even though we've beaten them twice already, because anything can happen. ... We just came out like we've never played them before.”
That might have been the Bulldogs’ mindset, but it was evident during the early minutes that these programs know each other very well.
Hart expertly defended Morgan and vice versa. While playing defense, Hart’s players were practically glued to Lawrence and fellow seniors Stevin Greene and Alec Woodard.
At one point during the first half, Lawrence had a dunk attempt get blocked while on a fast break play. One of Hart’s players jawed at Lawrence afterward, which resulted in a brief dust-up.
It was apparent that a close game was on tap for the evening. Morgan’s players made sure they did not allow their emotions to get the best of them.
“We had to create our own energy,” Greene said. “We didn't want to feed off of Hart County and just get rattled and stuff. We just wanted to be under control with our energy, feeding off our bench instead of just going off the crowd. You know the crowd's going to be in it 24/7, so we just had to be under control.”
The largest deficit during the first quarter was 7 points. Morgan led by that much twice during the opening period and, at the end, led 19-12.
Woodard, who drew two early fouls, sat during the second quarter in order to ensure he could play most of the second half if needed. Hart took advantage, cutting Morgan’s lead down to 19-16 with 6:28 left in the second.
A 3-pointer by Greene snapped Morgan’s scoreless spell and pushed the lead up to 6. Lawrence came through with a free throw while Greene scored twice more on layups to give Morgan an 11-point cushion by the 4:28 mark.
Trent Folds made a layup at 2:51 to give Morgan a 12-point lead and, by halftime, the Bulldogs were ahead, 31-24.
“We got rattled a little bit because that's one of our primary ball handlers that we push the ball with,” Greene said regarding Woodard sitting out the second quarter. “We had to slow it down a little bit and execute our plays.”
Woodard cheered on his teammates from the sideline.
“They were playing so well in the second quarter,” Woodard said. “I really wasn't sweating it as much because it's a team effort, team everything. There is no 'I' in team, so I was just happy for them that they were doing what they were doing.”
Woodard returned to the floor to start the second half. He scored on a layup 32 seconds into the third quarter.
From there, Morgan and Hart went back and forth. Ultimately, free throws by A.J. Brown, a layup and rebounds by Malik Crawford and rebounds and strong defensive plays by Nolan Causwell kept Morgan in front.
“The other guys on the floor, like Trent, Malik and Nolan, they were huge [Thursday],” Sims said. “A.J. with his offensive rebounds and transition buckets – those were timely buckets. I was glad to see those guys that don't get as much publicity or notoriety come out and contribute on the big stage.”
Throughout the game, Morgan out-rebounded Hart 40-26. Lawrence said that harkened back to rebounding drills the Bulldogs ran during the practices leading into Thursday’s game.
Lawrence, who scored a game-high 19 points, grabbed 18 boards himself. Greene finished with 14 points while Woodard had 13 and Crawford had 11.
To round out Morgan’s scoring, Brown had 6 points, Folds had 4 and Ar'Mond Wright had 1.
Sims said the emphasis on rebounding, in addition to a different offensive approach, led to Morgan’s effective scoring spread.
“We worked on, in the second half, getting more high-percentage shots,” Sims said. “I think we might have taken three or four jump shots in the second half but everything was penetration, everything was drop-off passes, just trying to make sure that we get high-percentage shots and try our best to out-rebound them.”
The game plan worked, and the end result was a state championship.
The Saturday before the big game against Hart, Morgan defeated Windsor Forest in the Final Four round in Savannah. After that game, Lawrence likened his team’s quest to win the title to climbing toward a mountaintop.
Last Thursday, the Bulldogs finished the climb and Lawrence got to take in the view.
“It looks great,” he said. “I'm just glad we were able to finish on top. We've been working for this for a long time. I'm glad we were able to do it.”