WINDER - Both Heritage head coach Vernon Denmark and Salem head man Noah Harrell believed the Seminoles were much better than their No. 7 seed suggested heading into the Region 8-AAAAA Tournament.
Thanks to a dominant effort by its defense in the fourth quarter, Salem proved it.
The Seminoles erased a 14-point deficit and held second-seeded Heritage to no field goals over the final 5:45 in a 60-58 victory in the quarterfinals.
Salem (8-18), which was swept in two regular season games by their county rivals, qualified for the state tournament and will head to Loganville for tonight’s semifinals at 5:30 p.m. against the winner of No. 3 seed Apalachee and sixth-seeded and host Red Devils. Meanwhile, the second-seeded Patriots, who didn’t convert a field goal after Terrell Rainey’s bucket with 5:45 to go, finished 20-6.
Kristopher Bridgeman, who was questionable to play after suffering a left ankle injury during a practice last Saturday, got an excellent fourth quarter started with a beautiful crossover and lay up to put Salem up for the first time at 57-55 with three minutes to play in the game.
Andre Harris had two chances to tie things up, missing both free throws on one trip, then hitting 1 of 2 from the stripe to get Heritage to within 57-56 with about 2 1/2 minutes left.
Bridgeman did it again on the ensuing possession, finishing a strong drive with a lay up that made it a 59-56 game.
It was 59-58 after Rashad Jones hit two free throws. Salem turned the ball over and Heritage had a chance to take back the lead, but Byron Abrams had his jumper partially blocked and Salem eventually came up with the loose ball. Quintavius Byrd made a free throw to make it 60-58 and Harris missed a running 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“We always felt that we were a state playoff team, it was just a matter of them buying into that,” Harrell said. “To (allow) 19 points in the second half when they score 39 in the first…we’re looking for the complete game, that was close.”
Salem erased an 11-point third quarter deficit and closed the third with a nice alley-oop from Bridgeman to Austin Samuel for a lay up. That cut the Patriots’ lead to 51-47 heading to the final period.
“End of the third, when we made that run with some of our guys that have been coming off the bench and they really stepped up and gave us big momentum going into the fourth quarter,” Harrell said. “We knew going into the fourth quarter it was anybody’s game.”
Bridgeman and Samuel, who each finished with 13 points, kept it up during the early stages of the fourth. Bridgeman had a pretty runner in the lane, then Samuel’s hustle led to him corralling a loose ball, converting a lay up and adding a free throw on the three-point play that pulled Salem to within 53-52 with just under six minutes to go. Rainey scored to make it 55-52, but Heritage scored only three points the rest of the night.
Jordan Thomas came off the bench and had five straight points that helped Heritage go up 16-8 with 1:43 to play in the opening quarter.
Salem closed to within 16-12 on a pair of free throws from Robert Baker before a nice drive and lay up by San Marteen Rozier gave the Patriots a six-point cushion after one.
It was just a three-point game early in the second when Jones drove for a lay up and was fouled by David Noble. Noble also got hit with a technical foul, and Heritage used that to go on a long run that extended its lead to double digits.
Starting with Jones’ bucket and including a Jones’ 3-pointer and a five points from Makyle Wilkerson, the Patriots scored the next 11 points and led 32-18 with 5:46 to go until halftime.
Salem had a quick, 7-0 run to get back in it. The spark came from reserve Jarrett Cook, who hit a three in the corner and added two other buckets as the Seminoles closed to within 34-28 with a 1 1/2 minutes left in the second.
Jones, who led all scorers with 19 points, drained another 3-pointer, helping the Patriots go into the locker room up 39-30.
Heritage led 45-34 two minutes into the third on Rainey’s bucket, but the Patriots made just four field goals the rest of the way.
The No. 1 seed and defending region champion Salem girls, who finished the regular season on a 19-game winning streak, played eighth-seeded Heritage in a quarterfinal game Monday that ended too late for this edition.