Lithia Springs has barely been beating opponents this season. The Lions average just a three point margin of victory, yet came into their first Region 5-AAAA tournament game Wednesday as the No. 2 seed.
The Kell Longhorns came into the game at Lithia Springs still missing their top two scorers and having battled for a one-point victory over Douglas County in the previous round.
Kell ambushed Lithia in the first quarter. The Longhorns played an eight-minute stretch as perfectly as any team could.
“We came out ridiculously hot,” said head coach Keith Whitaker. At the end of the first quarter Kell led 23-5, but Lithia Springs head coach Jason Slate told his team, “I’m not worried about what the score is at the end of the first, I’m worried about what the score is at the end of the fourth.”
With that sage advice in hand, the Lions began to chip away.
Lithia answered the Kell play with an 11-3 run to start the second quarter. Led by junior Femi Ojuolape’s 20 points, all coming from the second quarter on, the Lions slowly climbed back into the game.
Dealing with Lithia’s constant full-court press began to tire the Longhorn’s depleted backcourt. Senior Nick Baumann’s electrifying ball handling, which brought the mostly pro-Lithia crowd to its feet on several occasions, was put to the endurance test. “He’s an awesome point guard, we just tried to contain him and wear him down,” said Slate. At halftime the Kell lead had been trimmed to eight, 33-25.
Lithia Springs began playing to its strength in the second half. Despite Kell senior Jordan Bagwell scoring 17 of his 21 points -- most on offensive rebounds and loose ball retrieval -- the game’s tempo turned into an up-and-down affair with lots of long jumpers. The Lions style of spreading the ball around and knocking down jump shots helped to cut the lead to just five after three quarters.
Early in the fourth Longhorn sophomore guard Brendt Pickens fouled out leaving an already hobbled backcourt with one less player. Lithia Springs’ Ojuolape scored nine of his 20 in the fourth and senior Michael Taylor connected on his last three free throws to bring the Lions all the way back.
Coach Slate summed up his team’s performance like this, “Typical Lithia Springs fashion, spot them 25 then come back in the fourth quarter to pull it out… typical Lithia fashion.”
The Lions held on despite three point-blank attempts by Kell to tie the game and won a spot in the state playoffs, winning 65-58. They also earned a spot in the Region 5-AAAA semifinals against Villa Rica on Friday at Kell High School.
Kell finished this season with a lot of promise going forward. After setting a school record with 12 wins coach Whitaker spoke of the roster he will be bringing back next season, “We’ve got three really talented freshman, we’ve got a lot coming back next year, our style is going to change a little bit and I’m looking forward to getting back to it.”