After the LaFayette Ramblers punched their ticket to the finals of the Whitwell Christmas Tournament on Friday night, the Ringgold Tigers made it an all-Peach State championship game with a 63-52 victory over East Ridge in the final game of the evening.
But unlike the Ramblers' waltz, the Tigers' win was anything but easy.
Ringgold (10-2) trailed 30-20 at halftime and was down 48-41 to begin the fourth quarter. But the Tigers would finally get their defense on track in the final eight minutes, outscoring the Pioneers, 22-4, to complete the comeback.
"It was so frustrating because that first half was probably the worst half of basketball, defensively, that we've played all year long," Tigers' head coach Greg Elkins explained. "We didn't close out well and (East Ridge) hit some shots. Once they did that, they starting rolling and it was tough for us to make them feel uncomfortable.
"But we made some adjustments at halftime and went with some ball pressure in the second half and I think the full-court (press) wore them down. They weren't very deep and I think that got them in the end."
Ringgold would close to within three points in the third quarter, 38-35, but East Ridge refused to give in and got an off-balance 3-pointer at the horn to extend its lead to seven entering the final period.
However, the full-court press began to take its toll on the Pioneers, who did not substitute much during the game, and the Tigers were finally able to swing the momentum to their side for good.
A Logan Hullender 3-pointer and a baseline floater from Chandler Chastain finally put Ringgold in the lead, 51-50, with five minutes to play. Two strong moves to the basket, one by Hullender and another by Cade Nayadley, was followed by a steal and lay-up by Blake Goldsmith, pushing the advantage to 57-52 with two minutes to go.
After an East Ridge miss, Ringgold pushed the ball in transition and got a fastbreak lay-up from Ammon Murphy off a nice assist from Hullender and, following another defensive rebound, the Tigers began to take the air out of the ball, forcing East Ridge to put them on the line.
Nayadley would connect on four straight free throws in the final 1:08 to provide the final margin of victory.
Elkins said his team's depth was the key to the big fourth quarter.
"Our guards really pressured the ball and (East Ridge) stopped hitting their free throws and that was probably because of fatigue," he said. "We were closing down on their 3-pointers and once we got them off the line, they really didn't have much else. A large percentage of their points came off threes and free throws. We shot ourselves in the foot a lot with careless turnovers, but once we started minimizing that, we finally sewed the game up."
It was another balanced scoring effort for the Blue-and-White as Hullender and Murphy both went for 11 points. Nayadley and Goldsmith each had 10, while Chastain and Jackson House each added eight.
Tyrone Martin had 15 points for East Ridge and was the game's high scorer.
"It's always good to be pushed, especially by a team whose style we're not familiar with, during the season," Elkins added. "It helps us become a more well-rounded team. I'm proud of our guys for showing some perseverance. This time last year, we probably lose that game."
Ringgold and LaFayette will tip off at 7:30 p.m. Central time on Saturday.