Friday, November 18, 2016

Henley's heroics help Laney escape Crawford and Greenbrier's surge; and Lakeside takes a significant step forward with win over Josey

Richard Crawford III celebrates after a dramatic three pointer that
tied Greenbrier's game with Laney at 53 with 42 seconds remaining.

After getting possession late in the fourth quarter following Richard Crawford III's heroic game tying three, Laney junior Donald Henley dribbled through almost the entire 42 seconds left in the final possession before driving left and banking in a runner just before time expired Friday to beat the host, Greenbrier, 55-53 in the final game of the first session of the Wolfpack Tip-off Challenge.

The Greenbrier "campus," including the middle school, where Lakeside topped Josey in another Challenge game, turned into a basketball hotbed Friday night when the home team's matchup with the area's perennial powerhouse, Laney, turned into a high pressure game of "can you top this" in the game's final minute while the packed fan sections dueled to see who could scream louder their support for their team.

Crawford went first, stroking a three off the dribble with Henley draped on him well behind the line to tie the game at 53 with 42 seconds remaining. 
Crawford's third three of the second half capped an 11-0 run that started right after Maurice Paige, who led Laney with 16 points, scored a layup with 4:33 remaining in the fourth quarter to give Laney a seemingly insurmountable 53-42 lead.

Crawford, who scored 25 points in one of the most impressive individual performances of the first week of high school hoops, stopped at mid court after nailing the tying shot to pound his chest and yell with joy to his teammates who swarmed him after Laney called timeout to set up the final possession.

Henley, who is as cool of a customer as there is after two seasons of playing big minutes in some of the town's most heated rivalry games, dribbled from side to side near half court until attacking the rim and giving the ultimate answer to Crawford, his teammates, and the Wolfpack faithful.

What do Friday's games tell me?

On this first day (for Laney) of the 2016-17 season, Henley, a veteran of the Wildcats' recent Final Four and Elite 8 teams, imposed his will, keeping from Greenbrier the satisfaction of starting what I believe will be a promising Wolfpack season with an emotional win and an early statement made about whether there will be a new "order" of the area's best teams.

I've said since last season that the talent level of the younger players in Columbia County has caught up to that of Richmond County. Crawford, his Wolfpack teammates Austin Canaday, and Brandon Harris, as well as Kalen Williams, Brad Hilley, and Tucker Gilbert of Lakeside are some of the players who have caused me to make that claim.

Even though Greenbrier barely fell short of completing the Lakeside and Greenbrier sweep of Josey and Laney Friday, the Columbia County teams convinced me that the chances are at least as good as not that such a sweep will be in play Saturday when Lakeside plays Laney (7:00) and Greenbrier plays Josey (8:30) in the closing games of the second day of the Challenge.

Greenbrier and Lakeside are learning how to win

Greenbrier absorbed an onslaught of defensive pressure Friday and looked ready to fold when Laney's 2 point halftime lead became 10 in the third quarter after a series of Wolfpack turnovers led to a string of open court Wildcat layups. When Henley stole the ball on consecutive possessions and PJ Walker and Paige finished back-to-back layups as a result to give Laney a 39-29 lead with 1:33 left in the third quarter, Laney's crowd broke out in their familiar "Let's go Laney" chants that are normally heard downtown when a more familiar rival has invaded Laney Walker Boulevard.
But Crawford and his teammates weathered that barrage. And even when the deficit grew to 11 halfway through the fourth quarter, the Wolfpack found a way to put themselves in position to win.

Taking Laney's best shot and still finding a way to be successful makes me believe that in addition to the talent level at Greenbrier, coach Casey Heckathorn has reasons to be optimistic about having significantly more success with his maturing group. They are learning how to win, which is a necessary step that comes after the talent is in place. (Donald Henley once learned how to win too.)

Also learning is coach Jeff Williams's Lakeside team. After an emotional season opening loss at Butler, where no seating was available nearly two hours before the game tipped off, the Panthers looked crisp and confident in their 73-67 win over Josey, a long time hoops power that many people believe can be our area's best team. Even though he scored 9 fewer points (21 total) in today's win than the 30 he scored in last weekend's loss, sophomore Kalen Williams looked much more comfortable and confident tonight. So did seniors Kresean Hall (14 points and 11 rebounds) and Deon Berrien (11 points and 10 rebounds), as well as Hilley and Gilbert, who all contributed to this dominant first half Panther run:
Every day I am more convinced that our "area" has become a "basketball town." Players like Richard Crawford and Kalen Williams, not to mention Augusta Christian's Nate Dunlop, Augusta Prep's Ryan Jolly, and many more; and schools like Greenbrier and Lakeside, will prove that we have a basketball "town" that spans multiple counties and cities, not just the actual city of Augusta or any one geographically bounded space.

I will miss day two of the Wolfpack Challenge because I will be covering Augusta University, NCAA Division II's #18 ranked team, take on #22 West Georgia at 4:00 P.M. at Christenberry Fieldhouse. I won't regret choosing the best game in town, my favorite descriptor for our home town college juggernaut, over the games at Greenbrier. But I will be a little bit envious when I hear that the roof was again blown off the building because of the great basketball and the great environment, just like we witnessed Friday night.

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