WINDER - They came, they saw, they conquered.
Both the Rockdale and Heritage boys basketball teams won their opening round games of the 8-AAAA boys basketball tournament Saturday evening, ensuring a spot in the state playoffs.
Under the direction of first-year coach Alvin Williams, Rockdale (18-7 overall) topped Madison County 61-58 in a thrilling overtime.
Meanwhile, legendary coach Ron Bradley led Heritage (18-7) to a convincing 56-39 victory over Apalachee.
Rockdale 61, Madison County 58 (OT)
It had been 26 years since the Bulldogs reached the state basketball playoffs - until Saturday evening.
Rockdale took care of Madison County in overtime behind the play of a highly talented and relentless club, one willing to back down under no circumstances whatsoever.
"Tell you what, I thought I was going on vacation there for a second," Rockdale first-year coach Alvins Williams said with a laugh about the dramatic finish.
Free throws burned Madison County in the end. The Red Raiders were 0-for-4 from the charity stripe in overtime, finishing 10 of 19 for the game.
On the other hand, Rockdale finished 16 of 29, committing three less turnovers (13) than Madison.
After the first quarter of action, both teams were knotted at 9. A basket by Rockdale's Isaiah Gresham tied it to end the initial eight minutes.
Yet Madison outscored Rockdale 14-11 in the second period to take a three-point lead entering halftime.
The Bulldogs sprang to life in the third quarter behind the sharp shooting of junior Cordarryle Bethley and senior Julius Giles. Each netted three field goals apiece to give Rockdale a 39-37 lead entering the final quarter.
Bethley finished with 12 points, while Giles ended with eight.
"This was a big win and it feels good," Giles said. "I haven't been to the state playoffs all four years of high school. It's my senior year - now it's time to go."
In the fourth quarter Madison's Seth Fleming provided the dramatic finish to regulation after sinking two 3-pointers, the latter coming with just 5.8 seconds remaining to tie it at 54, sending the game into overtime.
Enter junior Byron Lawrence, who scored four of Rockdale's seven points to preserve the historic win. The clincher was a field goal within the final minute to make it 59-56.
"It was huge. He is what I call a money-player," Williams said after the game. "I wish I could get him to play hard all the time, but he doesn't play hard until the game's on the line like tonight."
Lawrence ended with 10 points, eight coming in the second half and overtime.
Rockdale sophomore Kevin Ware finished with a team-high 14 points - five off his career-high - in just three quarters of action. Ware added four boards and five blocked shots, including one in the third quarter with 2:03 remaining off a Fleming 3-point attempt, sending it high into the stands and igniting the crowd.
"It's been four hard years to get to this point right here. We've never been to the state playoffs since 1983, and we finally made it today," Rockdale senior Jonathan Gissentanner said.
Madison's Patrick McCrary scored a game-high 17 points and collected seven rebounds. Fleming added 14 points, while Bradley Raines had 11.
Heritage 56, Apalachee 39
Heritage limited Apalachee to just five points in the final quarter en route to the victory, proving that defense does indeed win ball games.
"We had a good second half and this was a good win for us," Heritage coach Ron Bradley said. "It's nice to be alive and get a chance to play (this) week and all. In the first half it looked like we got outhustled, and in the second half we played some good basketball."
Apalachee came out of the gates strong, outscoring Heritage 16-11 in the first period behind the shooting of Dillon Moon and senior standout Chaun Gresham, who combined for 14 points.
Heritage retaliated in the second quarter thanks to seven points by sophomore Miles Harris, helping his squad close the deficit to 26-25 entering halftime.
By intermission, Gresham had 12 points, showing no signs of slowing down.
Heritage held the sharpshooter to just two points and zero field goals in the second half.
"We just got a little more pressure on defense and it paid off," Bradley said. "The guys just gave a good effort and it sure is nice to win."
The Patriots exploded for 19 points in the third quarter. Highlighting the 24th minute was Harris.
With just 3.9 seconds left, junior Garry Peters - starting quarterback for Heritage - launched a full-court pass to senior 6-foot-8 center Justin Jones. Jones, a football player himself, made the catch before shoveling the bounce pass to a wide-open Harris for the 3-pointer, giving Heritage a 44-34 advantage entering the fourth.
"It was big (because) it put us up by 10 and just gave us momentum to play harder," Harris said.
In the final eight minutes Heritage dominated, limiting Apalachee to a mere five points. The Wildcats' first point came at the 2:16 mark, a jumper by Moon to make it 55-39.
"All I know is that we had to get on task. We started off slow, and then when we came up we had to finish it off strong," Heritage senior Austin Murray said. "We knew we could play better, so we just did the job."
Murray finished with 14 points, 11 coming in the second half.
Harris ended with a game-high 20 points, as well as five boards and five 3-pointers.
"It feels good to keep going," Harris said. "Now we're in state and haven't been in a long time."
Jones finished with eight points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots for the Patriots. Shakeem Mitchell added seven points and eight boards, while Peters had six points and seven rebounds.
Gresham finished with a team-high 14 points and seven boards. Moon added 13 points, while Devaughn Kilgore snatched seven rebounds.
Jason Murdock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.