MCDONOUGH — Derrick Mason took over as head boys basketball coach at Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy before the start of last season. After leading the Chargers to the second round of the Class A-Private state tournament, a culture of winning was established.
ELCA added to the momentum of its budding program with Wednesday’s 69-63 win over Greenforest in the state quarterfinals. By knocking off the two-time defending state champions, the Chargers punched their ticket to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
“God is good. He has been so good to us as individuals, to our entire program. To go through an entire season of practices and playing and to not sustain any serious injuries is a testament to how good God is to a program,” Mason said. “It’s also a testament to our guys’ commitment to our process. We’re not driven by the outcome, they are committed to our process of getting 1 percent better. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face but it’s all about being committed to our process. The wins and the losses will fall where they may and tonight it fell right for us.”
ELCA had to work until the final whistle to oust a battle-tested Greenforest side. It wasn’t until Malachi Rhodes provided a thunderous dunk and a subsequent steal with 30 seconds left that the Chargers could truly celebrate their victory.
Rhodes and Mehki Cameron starred for the Chargers in the win. Cameron got ELCA going in the first half and finished with 23 points. Rhodes saved his heroics for the fourth quarter to finish with 15 points.
ELCA had several players named to the All-Region team this season, and that depth helped them take an early lead in the first quarter. A total of seven players scored in the opening period, most notably Trevon Reddish, who set the tone early on with an athletic one-handed jam along the baseline. ELCA led 17-10 heading to the second quarter.
“We’re blessed with depth, it really helps,” Mason said. “I’ve been preaching to these guys that I know it feels like there aren’t enough shots to go around but to play for one another. Tonight could be your night, tomorrow could be somebody else’s night. It should be all of our’s night because it’s a team sport.”
Greenforest displayed its resiliency to start the second quarter with a 12-2 run to tie the game at 22-all. ELCA answered through Cameron, who scored seven straight points. After a corner 3-pointer, Cameron finished off a dunk and then a tough layup to put the Chargers up 31-22 at the half.
“I wanted to help our team get going, offensively and defensively,” Cameron said. “It’s going to take defense and a team effort to come home with wins. To keep this going we have to keep playing as a team. They push me everyday in practice.”
The third quarter belonged to the Chargers as they built a 12-point lead heading into the final period. Following a Greenforest run that cut the lead to four, 36-32, Cameron converted a 3-point play to put his team back up by seven. He then came through with a steal and two-handed dunk with two seconds left in the period to send ELCA into the final quarter leading 49-37.
The Chargers hampered their ability to put the game away with careless turnovers to begin the fourth quarter. Greenforest took advantage, and behind seniors Jaylyn Clark and Christian Jackson, mounted a comeback behind 10 straight points to begin the period.
“They play hard, they are well-coached and they play with character,” Mason said of Greenforest. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I prefer it be a dogfight because that’s what I expect going forward.”
K.J. Jones helped stem the tide with his first 3-pointer of the game but Greenforest scored the next four to get to within one point, 52-51, with 4:43 remaining. Consecutive baskets by Cameron later in the period pushed ELCA’s lead to 62-55, but the Eagles scored six straight to cut the deficit to 62-61 with 1:45 to play.
Each team scored on their next possession, and following a Cameron free throw, ELCA held a slim 65-63 lead with 1:05 left. Reddish came away with an important steal and called timeout, which allowed the Chargers to milk 20 seconds of the clock. The possession ended with Rhodes finishing a monster dunk in traffic to put his team up 67-63 with 30 seconds left.
“It was very cool but it was a team effort from everybody. We all played hard, we kept a strong mindset,” Rhodes said regarding the final sequence of the game.
Greenforest tried to score quickly but wound up turning the ball over to Rhodes. He missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but the Chargers forced another Greenforest turnover with 10 seconds left to seal the win.
The Chargers will play Aquinas Friday night at 8 p.m. at Columbus State University. Aquinas beat Brookstone 66-41 Wednesday night.
“I told them a long time ago if we’re not going to go and play our best basketball then we should have lost a long time ago. We’re here so let’s go win it all,” Mason said