The Thomson Bulldogs were threatening to run away with it.
Midway through the third period of Tuesday’s state tournament game, the Bulldogs had surged to a 14-point lead over the Callaway Cavaliers.
Were the Cavaliers worried?
“We just had to keep playing defense, keep doing what we we do best,” freshman guard Braylon Sanders said.
Led by that suffocating defense, and an electrifying offensive effort by Dre Martin, the Cavaliers shrugged off that big deficit and charged back for an 87-83 victory.
The Cavaliers finished the game on an 11-2 run, and while the Bulldogs appeared to be wearing down late, the Cavaliers sprinted to the finish line.
“We started getting steals. They got tired,” Callaway coach Terry Hayes said. “They don’t go but six, seven deep. Our pressure finally got to them. It started going our way.”
Callaway (21-6) advances to the third round of the state tournament, and it will host Swainsboro on Thursday at 6 p.m.
Martin, a sophomore who had 28 points in a first-round win over Peach County on Saturday, was even better on Tuesday when he put up 39 points.
Sanders, who had 23 points against Peach County, added 18 points against Thomson, and Terry Godwin and Pedy Leverette scored eight points apiece.
By the time the third period ended, Thomson’s once-commanding lead was down to two, and everything seemed to be going Callaway’s way.
But the Bulldogs hung tough, and with 2:30 left in the game they were ahead 81-76.
The Bulldogs only scored once more in the game, though, and they didn’t even get a shot off on most of their possessions down the stretch.
Callaway’s ferocious full-court defense forced numerous turnovers in the game’s closing moments.
“Coach told us we had to put the defense on them,” Sanders said. “He told us to put the pressure on them. And we did.”
Martin hit a jumper with 1:05 left to get the Cavaliers within one, and a Thomson player was called for a charge on the ensuing possession.
The Cavaliers rushed the ball down the court, and Godwin scored with 49 seconds left to give his team an 82-81 lead.
Martin said the Cavaliers had the sense at that point that the Bulldogs were out of gas.
“They don’t roll that many people in. They were tired,” Martin said. “We do (have a deep bench). We have a second team.”
The momentum continued to go the Cavaliers’ way when they came up with a steal.
Sanders was fouled moments later, and he made a pair of free throws to put Callaway on top 84-81 with 44 seconds remaining.
Thomson’s next possession ended with a missed shot, and Ernest Patillo was quickly fouled, and he made one free throw with 36 seconds left to give Callaway an 85-81 lead.
The Cavaliers got the ball back after yet another steal, and Martin drained two free throws with 23 seconds left to put the Bulldogs in an 87-81 hole.
The Bulldogs finally scored with 17 seconds left to get within four and snap an 11-0 Callaway run, but that was the game’s final basket, and when the final horn sounded, the Cavaliers stormed the court to celebrate a hard-earned win.
“It’s that never-say-die attitude,” Hayes said. “They keep each other up.”
The Cavaliers remained upbeat early, even when things weren’t going their way.
A veteran Thomson team looked right at home on Callaway’s home court while charging to a 22-11 lead after the first quarter.
The Cavaliers found their footing in the second period, and they outscored the Bulldogs 24-13 to deadlock the score at 35-35 at the half.
Trailing by five, Sanders converted a three-point play with 52 seconds left in the half to get the Cavaliers within two.
After the Bulldogs went back up by four, Sanders and Martin scored on back-to-back possessions to even the score.
Following the 10-minute halftime break, the Bulldogs came out and seemingly took control of the game.
When Felton Hatcher scored with 5:10 left in the third period, the Bulldogs were ahead 51-38, and they pushed that lead to 14 points 30 seconds later.
“I came over to the bench and told the team, we’re still in it,” Godwin said. “It’s just like the first half. We have to come out rolling. I told the point guard and the shooting guard (Martin and Sanders), do what y’all do best. Shoot the ball. They shot it, and they started falling.”
Martin’s 3-pointer with 4:15 left in the third period got the Cavaliers back within 10, and the comeback was on.
With one minute left in the quarter, Sanders made a 3-pointer, and the Bulldogs’ lead was down to five.
A free throw gave the Bulldogs a six-point lead, but Patillo made a pair of free throws with 17 seconds left in the quarter, and Chris Jones scored with two seconds left to make it a 62-60 game heading into the final period.
The Bulldogs grabbed a six-point lead early in the fourth period, and they managed to keep at least a one-point lead until Godwin’s basket with 49 seconds left.
By that point, momentum was going the Cavaliers’ way, and they didn’t look back.
“The (Cavaliers) turned the ball over, missed easy layups, missed free throws, but at the end, they came through,” Hayes said. “They came through at the end.”
Callaway - 11 24 25 27 - 87
Thomson - 22 13 27 21 - 83
Leading scorers: Callaway - Dre Martin 39 points, Braylon Sanders 18 points, Terry Godwin 8 points, Pedy Leverette 8 points; Thomson - Ryan Kelly 21 points, Malique Gibbons 19 points
Up next: Callaway will host Swainsboro at 6 p.m. on Thursday in the third round