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SUWANEE (GA) – After settling into a very hostile environment, the McEachern Indians are on their way back to the Final Four.
Behind 27 points from Sharife Cooper and 26 from Camron Mcdowell, visiting McEachern outlasted North Gwinnett 75-68 in overtime during the 2020 GHSA Class 7-A playoffs on February 25.
With their ninth straight win, the Indians, who won the state title last season, are now in position to face either Norcross or Grayson in the Final Four at Buford City Arena on February 29.
“I think it is a pretty good achievement for us considering we lost everybody except Sharife from our starting lineup,” McEachern coach Mike Thompson said.
For much of the first half, McEachern couldn’t get much to go right with Cooper struggling to make shots against the Bulldogs’ zone defense and Jared Ivey (14 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks), RJ Godfrey (18 points, four blocks) and Brendan Rigsbee (21 points, three steals, two blocks) all performing well for North Gwinnett.
However, the Indians managed to cut a 14-point deficit to five points (32-27) by halftime.
“No. 1 the crowd takes a little getting used to,” Thompson said. “We played in some big games but not with that many people against us. It’s fun and my kids love it but it just takes a little getting used to. We didn’t do a very good job in the first half of pressing. We let them throw over the top of it. We let them get easy baskets. When we turned around and let them get the ball and then started trapping and crowding them a little bit it made a difference then we figured their zone out a little bit.”
Less than a minute into the second half, Mcdowell converted a putback dunk and Cooper made a layup to completely erase McEachern’s deficit and turn this into a back-and-forth battle the rest of the way.
“This is an atmosphere you might play in a couple of times a year,” said Cooper, who scored 22 points in the second half. “Some of these guys have never played in that atmosphere so being that everything was sporadic [North Gwinnett was] comfortable and we were sporadic. That was the difference in the beginning and once we settled in we were fine.”
Late in the fourth quarter, Mcdowell impressively dunked home another missed shot, resulting in a 60-59 edge in favor of the visitors. But Risgbee buried back-to-back 3s to put the Bulldogs ahead 65-60 with 3:00 left.
“Cam does a great job going to the rim whenever the ball is up there,” Thompson said. “He’s a great athlete.”
But Cooper responded with an alley-oop pass to Mcdowell for a slam then after number of missed shots and offensive rebounds, Israel Palmer (12 points) nailed a 3-pointer with 1:23 remaining to tie the score at 65.
“[Israel] came in third in the City of Palms 3-point Shooting Contest but the guy never takes a shot,” Thompson said. “You can’t get him to. He’s been in our program for four years. He is a heck of a hustler and does everything we ask him to do. He knows everything about defense and he will make a big shot every now and then.”
Then 20 seconds later, Randy Brady (eight points, six steals, two blocks) drew a charge against Rigsbee, placing McEachern back in position to take the last shot, which Cooper attempted in the waning seconds but Ivey blocked it as time expired to send the game to overtime.
In the extra session which was the third straight OT game for North Gwinnett, the Indians took the lead for good with 90 seconds left on a pair of free throws by Mcdowell, who also had 13 rebounds and made all nine of his foul shots.
With 21 seconds to play and a chance to tie, the Bulldogs drew up a play for a 3-pointer from the corner but Brady intercepted Rigsbee’s inbounds pass and Cooper and Mcdowell sealed things at the line on the other end.