Cairo Stalls, Bainbridge Finishes Strong

So close. So bitterly close. So close that they could hear the balls bouncing on the floor of their old dusty gym, see the old familiar faces dotted in their usual spots around courtside.

Isiah Chance's Cairo Syrupmakers came out and did everything you're supposed to do on an away court. Play ferocious defense. Attack, attack, attack. Hit your outside shots. They learned all this stuff by playing a hefty preseason schedule for two years. Trips to South Carolina, Alabama. Trying to get their team, loaded with seniors now, ready for a run at a Georgia state title.

At first, it looked as if all their preseason work paid off. If Cairo has played a better first quarter this season, nobody in Region 1-AAAA wants to see it.

Bainbridge, scorched to the tune of 26 first-quarter points, was wondering what was going on. The Bearcats, after all, had only lost once in region play all year long (to Dougherty) and had beaten Cairo in the Syrupmakers' gym by 10.

Amazingly, Cairo kept it up, Bainbridge's big man in the middle, Quorin Jackson, got into foul trouble and was neutralized pretty well. Outside shooters Jeremy Glenn and Philip Gamble, who'd lit up a sagging Cairo defense in their first meeting, were colder than a Bobby Knight thank you note.

With Cairo getting great play out of senior Micalvin Hammonds on both ends of the floor, Van Williams and Quan Brinson hustling and scrapping for every loose ball, Clifford Hammonds playing his usually dominating style, it didn't seem as if there were any way Cairo could lose. It was 34-26 at the half and 57-45 after three.

When Chris Wright had banged in a nice driving layup at the buzzer to make it a 12-point margin heading into the final eight minutes, the Cairo bench — and stands — rose as if they could smell victory. This is why you work so hard in the off-season, the preseason, for moments like this. Right?

Isn't that in the handbook for coaches? Chance's club seemed to sense it, too and though Bainbridge showed signs of stirring in the fourth quarter — boom, there was a Reggie Adams 3-pointer, boom, there was another one. Boom, there was a Jackson hoop, and another and another — Cairo always seemed able to answer.

But with 4:33 to go, when Micalvin Hammonds drained a 3-pointer to make it 65-55, they peaked. It was all downhill. And how downhill it was.

With the noise level rising inside Decatur County Coliseum like a fast-approaching train, Cairo simply stopped scoring. A team that had lived by the 3-pointer was now slowly dying by it. Their only basket in that final 4:33 was a Van Williams' steal and layup. Meanwhile, Bainbridge kept coming and coming and coming...

And when, in a furious final stand, Cairo blocked two Bainbridge shots and STILL they found a way to get a hoop, courtesy of an alert play by Brandon Gadson, it just didn't seem fair. Bainbridge had it, 69-67. They're thinking state title. Why not?

For the Bainbridge folks, who'd braved a ferocious Cairo assault for three full quarters, it was proof that if you believe enough and fight enough and work enough, your dreams can come true. Teams all across Georgia are learning and re-learning that now. It's that time of year.

And let's face it. It's important for Cairo to remember that. For the road to the state tournament now goes through Bainbridge. Cairo knows the way.

What they saw here tonight, they won't forget for a while. As much as it hurts — and it wouldn't surprise me if the bus was utterly silent on the way home — it might be the best possible motivating force for the Syrupmakers for the rest of the season.

When you're that close and lose remember that. And don't ever want it to happen again.

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