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Hebron boys basketball notches historic win

DACULA -- Dylan Schulte couldn't carry the offensive load all night.

The senior scored 12 of Hebron's 16 first-half points and five of its six field goals, while the rest of his teammates misfired badly on shots and turned the ball over 10 times, including seven in the second quarter.

The Lions were solid on defense, but their debut in the state boys basketball playoffs began with two quarters of jitters.

"That first half really wasn't us," second-year Hebron boys coach Will Cantrell said. "Thankfully we played pretty good defense in the first half. We did an excellent job on defense in the second half. We were a completely different team."

The Class A play-in game went just as the Lions' season has after halftime. Shaking off a slow start, they finished strong for a 60-50 victory over visiting Lincoln County that marked the first state playoff win in school history.

Coming back from adversity is something familiar for Hebron, which lost five of its first six games this season and had just three wins at its halfway point.

Schulte finished with 24 points and nine rebounds, and when his teammates began chipping in offensively, led by Tyler Matthews' 16 second-half points, the Lions had made history.

"I couldn't have asked for a better senior year, a better group of guys, a better coach," said Schulte, who was 12-for-12 from the free-throw line. "We all bought into this thing from the start. We've got more heart than anybody I've ever been around."

As rough as the first half was for Hebron, the second half brought a complete turnaround.

The Lions (12-15), who advanced to play at Whitefield Academy in Saturday's first round, followed their 16-point first half with a 20-point third quarter that led to a six-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Free-throw shooting played a big role over the final two quarters as they made 26 of 29 overall (89.7 percent) from the line. They made their first 17 attempts of the second half.

"I don't know the rankings in the county or the state, but we can shoot free throws," said Cantrell, a proficient free-throw shooter himself at Providence Christian in the early 2000s.

Free throws weren't the only thing falling in the second half. Hebron was an efficient 8 of 14 (57.1 percent) from the field, while holding Lincoln County (12-13) to 9-for-30 shooting (30 percent) over the final two quarters.

The Lions trailed by as many as seven points in the second quarter that saw only one field goal, a Derek Vandiver 3-pointer, that didn't come from Schulte. But they responded with better rebounding in the second half (Ryan Thomas also grabbed nine boards) and the other offensive options began picking it up.

Matthews scored 12 points in the third quarter on a trio of 3-pointers and three free throws after he was fouled on a 3-point attempt.

Tyler Skidgel gave Hebron its first lead with 5:07 left in the third and Caleb Hawkins also had two important back-to-back baskets late in the quarter to preserve the lead.

Lincoln made its run early in the fourth, closing to within a point three minutes into the quarter.

That's when Hebron senior Griffin Gambill, just seconds after re-entering the game, hit a long jumper for his first points, which also pushed the lead back to three points.

The basket sparked a 10-0 Hebron run and the Red Devils never challenged the lead again.

"That shot was vital," Cantrell said. "Griffin's a kid, he's a senior, and his numbers don't jump off the page, but he does so many things that people don't see. And he hit a big shot there."

Hebron made 16 of 18 free throws in the fourth quarter, missing just two meaningless ones in the game's final minute. The hosts led 60-47 before a Lincoln 3-pointer at the buzzer.

The victory sends Hebron into the next round as a heavy underdog -- second-ranked Whitefield (24-3) is led by Georgia signee Kenny Gaines -- but Cantrell and his players weren't too concerned with what's head.

They were more interested in celebrating a historic night, another big step in a breakthrough season that followed a 5-21 mark in 2010-11.

"I can't emphasize enough how much this means to the school," Cantrell said.

"It's such a blessing. I'm cautious with the word deserve, people throw that around too much sometimes. But I couldn't be more convinced that those kids deserve (their success)."