South boys basketball coach Chuck Gunter said his team has had to rally numerous times this season.
“We’ve had multiple games (where) we’ve been down before and had to come back,” he said. “I can’t recall where we’ve had so many games in one year. This is like our 10th or 11th game where we’ve had to come back from behind.”
But this one feels a little sweeter, because the Titans are headed to the Class 6A tournament after climbing out of a third-quarter hole to force overtime, then outscoring Southeast 11-2 in the extra period for a 54-45 sub-state victory.
It was South’s first victory over Southeast in three games this season. The most recent one was Jan. 23, also at Southeast, when the Buffaloes pulled out a 63-60 victory in their first game without senior standout Israel Barnes.
Seniors played major roles for the experienced Titans (13-9). Guard Deahavian Manning was deadly from the perimeter, hitting six three-pointers and finishing with 18 points. Elijah Punnett, held scoreless in the first three quarters, scored 14 points in the fourth quarter and overtime – he had eighth of South’s 11 points in the extra period.
Gunter said senior poise was a key. South has five seniors on its roster.
“That helped quite a bit,” he said.
But throughout the game, it was 6-foot-8 post Remy Lemovou who made sure there was a game to pull out, recording a triple-double of 10 points, 15 rebounds and 10 blocked shots.
“Everyone didn’t believe in us,” Lemovou said, “and we proved them wrong.”
South jumped out to an early lead, scoring eight of the game’s first nine points. The Titans managed to keep Southeast (16-6) at bay, holding a 22-18 lead at halftime.
In the third quarter, Southeast came alive, outscoring South 16-9 in the period and forging a 34-30 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Junior guard Johnny Murdock got into early foul trouble, getting whistled for his third with 2:01 left in the first quarter. But he made up for lost time in the third quarter, and his layup with 5:12 left in the third period gave Southeast its first lead of the game, 26-25.
“Any time someone like that gets in foul trouble, it makes a big difference,” Gunter said.
The Buffaloes began the fourth quarter strong, with sophomore Michah Jacques – who led Southeast with 22 points – hitting his fourth three-pointer of the game for a 43-35 lead with 3:23 remaining. His first three-pointer was on a desperation heave that cut South’s lead to 13-12 after the first quarter.
But slowly, South began to chip away and knotted the score at 43-43 on Punnett’s driving lay-in with 38.9 seconds left, forcing the overtime.
In overtime, Punnett took over, breaking the tie on a free throw with 3:45 left. After a Jacques jumper gave Southeast its last lead of the game, 45-44, Punnett drove the lane for three-point play with 2:32 left, then hit two free throws with 2:27 remaining, and Southeast never threatened after that.
“My teammates in practice, they always tell me fight, and never give up,” Punnett said. “(When) we went to that overtime period, I knew I had to contribute something to my team.
”(Southeast) gave us a second chance, and we took it.”
Gunter praised Punnett’s determination.
“Like I say, the game’s not over until the horn sounds,” Gunter said. “He stayed with it until that horn sounds, and it paid off.”
Punnett’s heroics didn’t surprise Lemovou.
“We just trust him,” Lemovou said. “He’s our main guy that can take the ball every time to the basket.”
Manning credited his teammates with finding him open on the perimeter.
“They kept finding me, Coach kept believing in me (and) I kept shooting the ball,” he said.
He said he was excited to return to the state tournament.
“Four years in a row,” he said. “It feels amazing. This year, it feels super-special because we did it by ourselves. It just feels amazing to be here.”
Gunter said Manning’s shot had been inconsistent, but he picked a good time.
“He’s kind of had his slumps a little bit,” Gunter said. “He picked the right game to be on, and he found his shot.”
Barnes did not suit up and was in a walking boot but might have been able to play some had Southeast advanced.
South 13 9 8 13 11 – 54
Southeast 12 6 16 9 2 – 45
SOUTH – Punnett 14, Manning 18, Pugh 2, Silmon 3, Lemovou 10, Johnson 5, Sharma 2.
SOUTHEAST – Jacques 22, Webb 4, Murdock 7, Warrior 8, T. Adkins 2, Wright 2.