LILBURN — Berkmar’s boys were quite aware of the underdog act Archer had played all week during the Region 8-AAAAA boys basketball tournament.
Perhaps it hit close to home.
“They’re a little like we were last year,” Patriots coach Greg Phillips said of the Tigers, reminiscing on how his team recovered from a 1-15 start to become a thorn in everyone’s side by the end of the season a year ago.
Berkmar proved it was still slightly further along of the Cinderella Tigers in Saturday’s region championship game, taking the lead just after the opening tip and getting clutch points from veterans Brandon Thompson and Yonel Brown to hold off Archer 48-45 on Saturday night at Parkview High School.
The region title, and the No. 1 seed for the region in the Class AAAAA state tournament that comes with it, is the culmination of a long journey for the Patriots, who play host to Roswell in the first round of state next weekend.
“To go from 20 losses last year to 20 wins this year is just indicative of the hard work these kids put in,” Phillips said after his team improved to 20-7 on the season. “When we started 1-15 last year, we dealt with a lot of adversity, and it helped us (Saturday) night.”
The experience would come in handy, as Archer (12-16), which plays host to West Forsyth in the first round of state, wasn’t going to go away despite the early deficit.
Still, it seemed everything that had gone right throughout the tournament for Archer was a different story early in Saturday’s game.
Just 45 seconds in, a Tiger defender went up for an uncontested rebound of Tim Rowe’s errant jump hook, but inadvertently deflected it into the basket to put Berkmar up 2-0.
The Patriots extended that lead to as much as 10-2 after Brandon Thompson’s driving layup with 3:25 left in the first quarter.
Still, Archer wasn’t going to go down without a fight, closing to within 13-8 by the end of the period, and then answering Rowe’s layup 12 seconds into the second quarter with a 6-2 run — capped by a Tremique Anderson free throw — to pull to within 17-12 with 5:54 left in the first half.
But it looked like Berkmar might run away and hide as an 8-0 run late in the quarter — keyed by four points from Thompson and two points and two assists from Brown — helped the Patriots build as much as a 13-point lead before taking a 27-16 advantage into halftime.
The lead would grow to as much as 13 again after two Rowe free throws 1:30 into the third quarter, but once again, Archer refused to quit.
“These kids have such great heart,” Tigers coach Tim Watkins said. “I thought we didn’t play as well as we had the rest of the week, but we fought hard for 32 minutes. We had to play too much catch-up.”
Archer kept chipping away at the Berkmar lead, pulling to within 32-25 by the end of the third quarter, and pulling to within 40-35 after a pair of Chris Donaldson free throws with 2:33 to play.
But each time it looked like the Tigers might threaten to creep even closer, either Thompson or Brown would step up.
After missing the front end of a 1-and-1 opportunity with 2:35 to play, Thompson connected on both ends of two more such opportunities over the next 1:16, pushing the Patriots’ lead back to 44-36.
Brown also hit four clutch free throws over the final 30.2 seconds, the final two making the score 48-42 with 9.3 seconds left.
“We knew we had to put the ball in our hands in the fourth quarter,” said Thompson, who scored half of his team-high 16 points in fourth quarter, of himself and Brown. “This feels good.”
Dinesh Brown hit a 3-pointer with 2 seconds left to pull Archer as close as it had been since late in the first quarter, but time simply ran out on the Tigers, and Berkmar celebrated its region title.
Thompson added a game-high nine rebounds — part of a 39-24 advantage on the boards for the Patriots — to his point total, while Yonel Brown added 13 points and Rowe finished with 11 points and seven boards.
Dinesh Brown led Archer with 18 points and six rebounds, while Bryan Hamlet scored 16.