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Mill Creek rides defense to first playoff victory

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

MARIETTA — As the pass sailed toward midcourt, Brandon Hayman realized it was too strong. And he couldn’t have been happier.

“I was too happy,” the Mill Creek senior said. “It was a moment of glory.”

Hayman ran down the overthrown Walton pass, stepped back and drew the foul. He didn’t make both his free throws, but he hit his second to give the Hawks a 65-61 road win over Walton in the first round of the Class AAAAA playoffs. It’s the program’s first playoff win. The Hawks will host Roswell in the second round next week after the Hornets beat Berkmar on Saturday.

“This was a great win,” Hayman said. “I have been waiting for this since my sophomore year when we lost in the first round.”

That was a late loss to South Gwinnett and Saturday almost ended just as poorly for the Hawks.

Mill Creek pulled away in the second quarter, forcing seven Walton turnovers and hitting three of its six 3-pointers. The Hawks out-rebounded Walton 13-6 in the quarter and took a 34-25 lead at the break. But the physical second quarter set the stage for a rough second half where both teams eclipsed 10 fouls early in the fourth quarter.

But physical worked for Mill Creek, which entered eying to stop Walton’s Karl Cochran and Lanerryl Esters-Johnson. The two seniors did plenty of scoring, but they were the only two and nothing came easy.

“We did an outstanding job on (Cochran and Esters-Johnson) all night long,” Mill Creek head coach Chad Rogers said. “Except for a few layups, every shot they took was contested. “

Cochran led all scorers with 25 and Esters-Johnson scored 16, but they were the only Raiders to reach double digits. Compared to Mill Creek’s five players with more than 10 points led by Ronald Wamer’s 16.

Wamer hit three 3s in the game and it was his No. 24 jersey that appeared seemingly near every loose ball and around every rebound.

“This is my senior year, I love playing with my teammates and I didn’t want the season to end,” Wamer said. “(This win) is great. It’s surreal to me. We’re making history.”

The Hawks’ lead grew as big as 14 points in the third quarter. Walton’s Jack Kraemer answered with all six of his points in succession to help cut the deficit to 10 entering the fourth.

That’s where Cochran and Esters-Johnson led Walton back. The two combined for 10 points on a 10-4 run that ended with Cochran stealing the ball at midcourt and finishing on the other end. Cochran also had two assists to Esters-Johnson during the spurt.

But Mill Creek answered every charge, keeping grasps on a five-point lead until the final minute. The Raiders hit a pair of free throws and then Esters-Johnson hit a 3-pointer with 29.2 seconds left to bring Walton to within 63-61. They then forced a five-second call on the inbound play. But Walton missed its shot and Hayman came down with a rebound and timeout call along the baseline. A Raider foul sent Paul Evans to the line, and even after his first miss, he refocused to hit his second.

“We had worked too hard to go back home,” Evans said. “There was no turning back.”

The free throw gave-way to the Raiders’ final chances and ended with the turnover. An apt ending for a Hawks team that spent all week working on defense.

“Defense beat offense tonight,” Rogers said as he ran into the locker room to celebrate.