CONYERS - The Clarke Central Gladiators had no answer for the Rockdale frontcourt tandem of Darius McKnight and Duane Ferrell as the two big men fueled a furious late charge to give the Bulldogs a 63-55 victory Saturday night.
Just one night after letting a fourth quarter lead at Dacula slip away, first-year coach Mitchell Harris had his team prepared.
"The forwards did what they were asked to do," Harris said. "They didn't play outside of what they couldn't do and we told the team we would be successful by getting Duane Ferrell the ball inside. It opens the game up for everyone else."
The Bulldogs (1-1) started off fast as they jumped out to a 19-10 lead at the end of the first quarter. But the Gladiators went to a half-court trap defense in the second period and the Bulldogs' backcourt was clearly out of sync.
Clarke Central took a 28-27 lead and the momentum into the locker room at halftime.
The Bulldog's came out in the second half and immediately turned the tables, using a 1-3-1 press to confuse the Gladiators.
"We conserved a little energy and we changed the scheme at half-time," Harris said. "Coach (Earl) Graham pointed out that a 1-3-1 would be a defense they hadn't seen. They (Clarke Central) play it and do it in practice, but we felt that they would have trouble with it against longer players."
The Bulldogs regained their composure and got back into the flow as the third quarter wore on and the stage was set for McKnight.
Up by one, McKnight took a pass underneath the rim and flushed it home hard. McKnight's dunk sent the crowd into a frenzy and sparked the Bulldog squad who went on a quick 6-2 run toward the end of the third quarter. But Clarke Central hit two quick shots out of a timeout to knot the game up at 43-43.
Nate Gissentaner hit a bucket with 12 seconds left in the quarter and the Bulldogs took a 45-43 lead into the final period.
The two teams traded baskets and were tied three times to begin the fourth quarter before McKnight and Ferrell took over.
With the score 49-49, McKnight tipped in a missed shot to put the Bulldogs up by two.
On the next trip down the floor McKnight blocked his fourth shot of the game and Ferrell was fouled on the subsequent fast-break. Ferrell made one of two free throws and the Bulldogs seized control of the game.
McKnight put on a defensive clinic over the next four minutes as he grabbed seven rebounds and blocked three shots including two on one possession.
The Bulldogs rode the momentum of their power forward's inspired play and went on a 12-0 run over the final six minutes of the game.
Ferrell had a block, a steal, an assist and hit three clutch free throws during the run.
By the time the dust settled, the Bulldogs had a 61-49 lead. Clarke Central scored six points during the final minute but it was too little too late.
Despite the big win, Harris knows it's just the beginning and plenty of work lies ahead.
"Those guys are very patient, Ferrell and McKnight." said Harris. "If I can get the whole team playing like that we'll be in good shape. I don't want to win games off emotion. I want to win off skill and intelligence. It was a good win for us, but we're not there yet."
McKnight finished his big night with 18 points, 21 rebounds and seven blocks. Ferrell, not to be outdone, finished with 15 points and four rebounds to go along with one block and a steal.
While coach Harris' team scored their first win on the young season, the Lady Bulldogs didn't fare as well as they were defeated by a very athletic Lady Gladiator team, 94-39, in the earlier game.
Rockdale (0-2) started off well as it traded baskets with The Lady Gladiators throughout the first quarter and were tied 8-8 midway through the period. But Clarke Central went on a 20-1 run to close out the period to put the Lady Bulldogs down 28-9.
"We started off pretty well, intensity-wise and breaking the press," Rockdale girls coach Leonard Buckner. "Being young and not having that many experienced ball handlers, when they got tired and I took our main ball handlers out, that's when things fell apart."
The Lady Gladiators relentlessly attacked the Rockdale backcourt on every inbound pass with a diamond press and made it difficult for the Lady Bulldogs to get into any sort of offensive continuity.
Clarke Central led 60-21 at halftime and it didn't get much better in the second half.
For the second straight game, freshman Lauren Stewart was impressive leading the way for the Lady Bulldogs with 10 points and seven rebounds.
"We're young, period," said Buckner. "They have a well-coached, experienced team. But our freshmen played well. We're just young and we'll have to learn from it. I chalk this one up to that."