NORCROSS - Who could have expected this?
Peachtree Ridge boys basketball coach Gerald Arnold certainly didn't, admitting as much on Friday night at Norcross High School, moments after his young team defeated Collins Hill 70-66 to reach the Region 7-AAAAA tournament finals.
His Lions graduated seven important players from last season's 7-AAAAA title team, the one that upset nationally ranked Norcross in the finals. On top of that, attrition has left Arnold's young group with only 10 players this season. And two of those are call-ups from the junior varsity.
"Our squad has dwindled," Arnold said. "We haven't had enough kids to scrimmage at practice in a month."
Yet they persevered.
They held it together and earned the region's No. 3 seed. They survived again on Friday night, overcoming a rash of turnovers and run after run from second-seeded Collins Hill, which had defeated the Lions twice already this season.
And here they are again, back in the region title game with another shot at host Norcross today at 7 p.m.
"We don't get a lot of respect," Peachtree Ridge's Adrian Hubbard said. "People doubted us because we lost phenom players from last year like Zach Graham (now starting at Ole Miss) and Kevin Anderson (now starting at Richmond). We're trying to get our respect back."
They took a big step in the region semifinals, with Hubbard leading the way.
The 6-foot-7 sophomore had team highs of 25 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. He converted 13 of 15 free throws and the Lions made 24 of 28 overall from the line, compared to just 6 of 8 by Collins Hill.
His frontcourt mate, 6-4 freshman Cory Blackwell, had 14 points and nine rebounds.
Together, the two overshadowed highly touted Collins Hill junior Jeremy Olsen. The 6-foot-10 Olsen missed large portions of the game in foul trouble and finished with just six points and two rebounds. He scored all six of his points in the game's first three minutes.
"Olsen's a real good player," Arnold said. "When they beat us at our house Olsen played really well...Our guys made a commitment tonight to keep him away from the ball."
Peachtree Ridge (16-9) also got a big offensive lift from Bryen Pyles, who scored 15 of his 19 points in the first half. Shanahan Martinez added seven points and four steals, helping make up for an off night by leading scorer Khalid Mutakabbir, who had five points.
Collins Hill (19-8) led early in the second quarter, but never led again despite numerous runs. The Eagles got to within a point three times in the third quarter and cut the gap to two points in the fourth, but never regained a lead.
The Lions took control late in the second quarter, closing with a 7-0 run in the final 1:11 before half. However, their 33-23 halftime lead disappeared fast.
Collins Hill forced 15 Peachtree Ridge turnovers in the second half, nine in the third quarter. Despite the miscues, the Lions held on in the closing minutes thanks to superb free-throw shooting.
Andrew Anderson led Collins Hill with 18 points (16 in the second half) and had six steals. Josh Urquhart had 15 points off the bench and Reed Buck scored 12.
T.J. Williams had seven points, six steals, four rebounds and four assists for the Eagles, who play South Forsyth today at 3:30 p.m. for third place in the region.