NORCROSS — Every player dreams of hitting the game-winning shot to send their team to victory. Nobody practices for hours trying to imagine stopping a game-winning shot, but that's exactly what the Greater Atlanta Christian basketball team had to do in its first-round Class AAA state basketball game Friday night at the Long Forum.
Just after Josh Fulton hit a free throw (after missing the first one) to give the Spartans a 71-70 lead, Lovett drove the ball down the court and put the ball into the hands of Efe Bilgin. One dribble and a pull up by Bilgin saw the ball sail through the air to the basket. As the ball hit the top of the cylinder and rolled out, GAC's student section stormed the court as Lovett's fans stood in shock as the Spartans escaped with the 71-70 win to send them to the second round.
"We did some good things in the end on defense," said GAC head coach David Eaton. "He got open, but we still made it a tough shot. At the beginning of the year, we were so young with only two players who had played meaningful varsity minutes. We couldn't have played through that kind of adversity then. I'm so proud of my guys."
For Fulton, it was surreal how everything went down in the last 10 seconds of the game. As he drove to the hoop, he was fouled by Lovett's 6-foot-11 center Ryan Mutombo (his fifth foul) and sent to the line. After missing the first, he knew he had to relax.
"I told myself to settle down and make the shot," he said.
And that's exactly what he did. But as Fulton watched the last shot go up, there was a different feeling in his stomach; one that made that one second seem like one minute.
"My heart just dropped as I saw him put up that shot," Fulton said. "Then (when it rimmed out), it just got crazy. That's the kind of stuff you expect to see on TV. You don't expect to be a part of it."
All night, the two teams battled with the Spartans looking for any way to stop the son of NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo. Even with rotating bodies in and out throughout the game, Eaton knew Mutombo was still going to get his points, which he did with 40 to go along with 12 rebounds.
"We just had to keep throwing different bodies in there at him," Eaton said. "We wanted to wear him out and that's what guys like Jackson (Hardy) and Eddie (Page) did. Their play helped tire him and there were some trips down the court where he didn't get back in time because he was so tired and we took advantage."
In the early part of the game, the Spartans frustrated Mutombo and the Lions as they would get their fingertips on the ball to thwart some of Mutombo's opportunities.
A 3-pointer by Fulton gave the Spartans as 29-18 lead midway through the second quarter, but the Lions went on an 8-2 run to end the quarter, culminating in a layup by Mutombo near the buzzer, closing the gap to 31-26.
The third quarter saw the teams go shot-for-shot, with the Lions gaining a slight edge and finding themselves only down by one point (46-45) heading into the final frame.
A 3-pointer by Lovett's Kyle Walters and a dunk by Mutombo gave the Lions their first lead of the game (50-49) with 6:42 to go in the final quarter.
"Mutombo is obviously going to get his points, but they had guys that were able to hit threes when we collapsed down on him," Eaton said.
After the Spartans took the lead back later on a 3-pointer by Saiku White, the Lions went on a 7-0 run to go up 60-55. But GAC fought back. A 3-pointer by Cole Perusek, and a 3-pointer and driving layup by Fulton gave the Spartans a four-point advantage, 65-61 with 2:45 to go in the game.
As the clock went under a minute to play, Cliff Baskerville had a tip-in to put the Spartans up 70-68. However, Mutombo was able to answer on the other end with a layup to tie the game again, this time at 70-70, setting up the dramatic ending.
GAC was led by Fulton with 30 points, while Baskerville had 15 points and four rebounds. LaMarr Randolph as contributed 10 points and nine rebounds.
The Spartans will now face the winner of Monroe and Benedictine in the second round the the playoffs.