For the fifth time this season, the Carver Tigers boys basketball played the Americus-Sumter Panthers. This time, it was for the Georgia High School Association 2019 Class AAAA state championship.
Seeking the program’s second title and first one in 48 years, the Tigers came through with a 58-55 victory Friday in the Macon Coliseum.
Leading the Tigers in scoring were senior guards Anthony “A.J.” Watts (19 points) and Devin Flowers (18 points). Senior forward Jalen King had 12 points and 7 rebounds.
“I’m just so happy and elated for those guys,” said Carver head coach Warren Beaulah, whose Tigers lost in the state quarterfinals the previous two seasons.
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“It feels great,” Watts said. “It’s a dream come true. … We’re going to leave a legacy at Carver.”
Watts made the game’s two decisive baskets, both 3-pointers. The first one he banked in with 2:12 left to give Carver its first lead. The last one came with 28 seconds left — and with Watts falling to the floor — for a 55-54 Carver lead.
“When it left my hands, I knew it was good,” Watts said.
Hearing the Carver fans roar, Watts said, “I knew it was over with. I knew we had it.”
At practice Thursday, Beaulah said, he told his players to look in the Carver trophy case. He pointed to the 1971 state championship trophy and the 2008 runner-up trophy. And the coach asked, “Which one do you want?”
Carver had beaten Americus-Sumter in their previous three games, but MaxPreps put the Panthers at No. 1 in the GHSA Class AAAA boys basketball rankings and Carver at No. 3 after the Panthers upset No. 2 Sandy Creek 63-56 in the semifinals and Carver beat No. 5 Woodward 58-50 in the other semifinal.
The discrepancy in the rankings motivated the Tigers, Watts said.
“We never got respect,” he said. “So we had to prove a point. This was a statement game.”
“My hat goes off to Americus-Sumter,” Beaulah said. “They went through a gauntlet in the bracket they were in. We knew that it was going to be hard to beat them four times. I think, at first, my guys were kind of feeling that they couldn’t do it. But they kept on saying, ‘I can,’ and we did.”
After only three players (Watts, King and Flowers) scored in their semifinal victory, they spread the ball around more Friday — and more teammates converted their scoring chances more often.
“It was just a team effort,” Beaulah said. “I’m so proud. I feel like yelling.”
Speaking of yelling, Beaulah praised the Carver fans for voicing their support during the game. “They showed up, and we represented Columbus, Georgia,” he said.
The Carver girls warmed up those fans by winning their own state title in the previous game.
“When they won,” Watts said, “we were like, “We’ve got to win. It’s our turn.’”
Carver had trouble containing Americus-Sumter 6-foot-7 senior swingman Joshua Lusane (19 points, 10 rebounds), who made his first four shots as the Panthers built a 17-8 lead.
That was Carver’s largest deficit of the game. The Tigers trailed 23-20 at halftime.
“They never quit,” Beaulah said.
“We kept playing,” Watts said. “We never gave up.”
Watts banked in a 3-point at 2:12 for Carver’s first lead of the game, 51-50. Americus-Sumter converted one of two free throws to tie it, 51-51, at 1:50.
After a timeout, the Panthers came out with a trapping defense, forced a Carver turnover and scored a layup for a 53-51 lead at 1:25. Watts made one of two free throws to bring Carver within one, 53-52, at 1:11.
The Panthers made one of two free throws at 0:54 for a 54-52 lead. A turnover cost the Tigers their next possession. But they got another chance at 0:34 when the Panthers also turned it over. Watts then hit a 3-pointer as he fell to the floor at 0:28 for a 55-54 Carver lead.
Lusane missed a jumper, and Carver sealed the victory with King’s free throws and Watts’ steal.
“I feel like we did not have our better game against a real good Americus-Sumter team,” Beaulah said. “But (the Tigers), again, all year, had a bend-but-never break attitude, and they did not break. Those seniors came through.”
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.