The Rome boys could only smile once they were able to exhale.
Following a barnburner of a title game at the Cage Center at Berry College, it was the Wolves who were lifting their first Gold Ball Trophy since 2009, earning a tight 67-63 win over Model on Thursday night in the Rome News-Tribune/Seven Hills Rotary Christmas Tournament championship.
After Model’s Ethan Davis hit a 3-pointer with 50.2 seconds left to bring the Blue Devils within one at 64-63, Rome’s Caleb Byrd drew a foul and sank two free throws with 27.7 seconds left to make it a three-point advantage.
A Davis trey attempt glanced off the rim on the ensuing possession, and a free throw from K.J. brown sealed the deal for Rome.
Byrd finished with 35 points and was named tournament MVP. Justin Ingram, who was named to the all-tournament team, recorded 20 points for the Wolves Rome assistant head coach Terry Smith credited Rome’s emphasis on free throws in practice as being the edge that allowed the Wolves to pull out the tight victory.
“When you’re going against a team as good as Model is, it’s going to come down to one or two possessions,” Smith said. “A turnover here, a turnover there, and free throws.”
At the end of the first quarter, the Blue Devils led 17-13 thanks to some strong post buckets from Jabari Burge and 3’s from Brayden Dean, Kidron Ford, and Jackson Mathis.
Mathis finished with 19 points, including four 3’s, Burge added 14, and Ford chipped in 11 for Model.
Byrd stole back momentum for Rome when he put in a layup with one second remaining in the opening frame. That carried over into the second period, when Rome erupted for a 12-0 run that was highlighted by a Byrd breakaway slam. The junior had 18 points in the first half alone.
Model didn’t score in the second quarter until Kidron Ford hit a 3 with 4:32 left in the period.
That three opened the floodgates. After Rome’s Justin Ingram responded with a triple of his own, Model ripped off a 10-0 run to finish the half, capped by a Ford fadeaway jumper as the halftime horn sounded.
Thanks to that bucket, the Blue Devils took a 30-28 lead into the break.
But the Wolves weren’t going away quietly. Just like in their Wednesday semifinal game against Cartersville, Rome exploded in a crucial third period for 20 points.
Ingram was a big factor, nailing two 3’s in three offensive possessions to spark a 15-2 run. Rome’s press defense was effective in creating turnovers that led to transition opportunities that were finished by Byrd, Ingram, and Jaylen Nelson.
Mathis, who was named to the All-Tournament team along with teammate Burge, would hit back-to-back 3’s for the Blue Devils to end the quarter, but Rome led 48-42 going into the final frame.
It looked like the Wolves might pull away for good when Ingram hit one of his five 3’s to put Rome up 59-50 with 4:58 left in the game. But two quick 3’s from Mathis and Davis cut the lead to six.
The next four minutes were a rollercoaster of big baskets scored by both teams, with David Veillon, Ingram, and Mathis trading buckets leading up to the climactic finish.