Not many people around the state gave the Calhoun boys a chance on Friday when they battled Greater Atlanta Christian, the No. 1 team in the state in Class AA and the No. 12 team in the country according to USA Today.
But the Jackets wouldn’t have had it any other way. And like they have all season, and the last two weeks in particular, they embraced the underdog role and went toe to toe with the defending state champion Spartans. But the game wouldn’t have a storybook ending for Calhoun, as they fell just three points short in a 58-55 loss at the Macon Coliseum.
The game was a back-and-fourth, extremely competitive affair with neither team holding a lead of more than six points. And Calhoun (26-3) came up with clutch shot after clutch shot every time GAC looked to be ready to stretch out the deficit.
“This group knows how to battle,” said Calhoun Vince Layson, who led his team to the Class AA Finals in just his second year. “We played four quarters of fantastic basketball, and we just fell one possession short.”
“It’s one of those games where if the ball bounces a different way or a call goes a different way, it could be a different outcome.
“You couldn’t have asked for a group to fight any harder than this group did tonight. I love every single one of these guys.”
GAC (32-0), who extended their winning streak to 50 straight victories, led 41-40 going to the fourth quarter. The final period would be filled with huge shots. With Calhoun trailing 52-47, Kaelen Riley hit a huge 3-pointer that brought his team within two with 42 seconds remaining.
Then, after GAC made 1-of-2 free throws, Jireh Wilson stepped up and hit an even bigger shot from long distance to pull within one at 54-53.
After two more free throws from GAC, Riley was fouled and he hit both shots to pull within one again. The final shot for Calhoun wouldn’t find its mark, however, after two more free throws from the Spartans as the Jackets fell just short of the school’s first basketball state title.
“These guys are big-time players, and they love the challenge,” said Layson. “And GAC being on the other side of the court made them want it that much more. Our guys all stepped up in different ways. They would make one, and we would answer. You can’t ask for more than that.”
GAC led 14-10 after the first quarter and 28-25 at the half. Calhoun never let them get out of reach in the game, and clawed back to within one at 41-40 to start the fourth quarter.
Riley was big for the Jackets with 18 points, 15 of those coming in the second half. Chandler Curtis scored 14, including hitting four clutch 3s. Austin Byrd and Keyth Fightmaster added eight apiece. Byrd also had 10 rebounds, with Riley pulling down eight.
Isaiah Wilkins, a Virginia commit and a stepson of Dominique Wilkins, had a huge day for GAC with 29 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. Ten of those points came in the fourth quarter. Calhoun made him make jump shots, and the senior stepped up and did just that on several occasions.
“(Wilkins) is a great player,” said Layson. “Our defense has been a staple all year. We don’t have bad defensive nights, and the guys stuck to the gameplan today. We wanted to make Wilkins step out and make jump shots, and he made us pay.”
No other GAC player scored more than seven in the win with Justin Lewis and Troy Morrison each chipping in seven.
Calhoun will lose three of their five starters in Byrd, Fightmaster and Curtis. Wilson and Riley will be the key returners as the Jackets look to sustain their success. This was only the second trip to the State Finals in program history, with the other coming up short as well in 2001 with a loss to East Hall.
Layson said he hopes the accomplishments of this group set the standard for Calhoun basketball.
“I think this is good for the young guys,” said Layson. “They’ve got a little taste, and being a little bitter with coming so close, if that don’t motivate you, I don’t know what will.
“I told the guys that football and baseball both have a tradition of playoff success, why can’t we have that in basketball. The future is definitely bright.”