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SPORTS RECAP: Hancock Central's Taylor drills half-court shot to beat buzzer, snatch state championship berth from Irish in Final Four

The Courier Herald – March 9, 2021

    SPARTA – If it's a regular day putting up shots in an empty gym, Jamal Taylor probably makes this one once in a couple dozen tries. 
   But added the do-or-die stakes of Saturday night's Class A state semifinal in front of a packed gym, with a second and a half to play and a championship berth on the line, the odds of this attempt from well over half the length of the court were one in at least several hundred. 
   Dublin led in the contest 72-70, after a key basket, a key stop and a touch of controversy to set up the desperation play for Hancock Central on an inbound from the right side of midcourt. Taylor got a clean pass in and a running start as he lifted up the prayerful shot with around .3 left on the clock, and swished it just after the horn to send the Bulldogs back to the state title game, and the Irish home in gut-wrenching defeat. 
   The final was 73-72. 
   Bad things tend to take place in slow-motion, but this play unfolded in real time. It was the aftermath of the buzzer-beating miracle for Hancock Central that turned surreal for the Dublin faithful, whose top-of-the-world feeling in the near-win crashed to rock bottom as the ball struck the center of the net. 
   The Irish fans stood frozen for a stunned moment before filing out in silence, watching as the home crowd poured from the seats onto the floor to celebrate. Dublin's players stood likewise in disbelief, and the momentary hope that an official might emerge from the ruckus to contend on some grounds that the basket was in fact, as it seemed, too improbable to be true.
   But there was no consolation, for the moment or the long ride home, as a memorable playoff run for the Irish came to a sudden halt, just seconds from its ultimate destination in Macon. Instead, it will be Hancock Central facing Towns County in defense of its 2020 Class A (Public) state title this coming weekend at The Coliseum. 
   "That's kind of one of those things that happens in basketball. He made his shot," said Dublin head coach Ben Smith. "When he first takes it, you're not worried at all, but as it was going to the goal, I could tell it was about to go in." 
   The deciding sequence followed a clutch basket and a huge stop for Dublin inside the final minute of the game, after Hancock had tied the count at 68. 
   The Irish ran a high ball screen out of a timeout for Tyquan Davis, who split past the Bulldogs' help to kiss in a right-hander that put Dublin on top 70-68. David Folsom grabbed the re of a missed try on the other end, drew a quick foul then sunk both free throws of his one-and-one, enlarging the Irish edge to 72-68. 
   Central missed on an ensuing 3-point attempt, but cut the deficit to two as Leroy Wilson swooped in for the follow with around five ticks to go. Dublin played the ball in to Zion Davis, who was fouled in a hurry and made his way back to the line for another one-if. But this time, the front end drifted wide to the left. A Hancock Central called time immediately upon securing the rebound, leaving just 1.5 seconds to play. 
   The game paused momentarily as coaches and officials sorted out a discrepancy as to whether Hancock Central had a timeout left to call, at the expense of a technical foul that would have all but ended the contest. 
   The Bulldogs, according to the tally of both sidelines, had already exhausted their allowance. But a check with the official book revealed one left for them to take – in hindsight one of Hancock Central's biggest breaks of the night. 
   As it would turn out, the ruling that came next was even bigger, as the crew of refs placed the inbound spot at midcourt rather than the baseline, vastly improving the quality of shot opportunities on Taylor's upcoming heave. 
   "We were told the ball was originally supposed to be on the baseline. Right before, the inbound moved to half-court. It was a big difference," Smith said. "It was a small thing that was major in the way it played out. 
   "It's a tough way to lose. The things that were most frustrating were the circumstances leading up to that, the controversy about where the ball was spotted. Whatever happens, it is what it is. But I think it just added to the frustration."
   Taylor finished with 14 to join a trio of double-digit scorers for Hancock Central. Marquavious Lawrence led the Bulldogs with 20, and Leroy Wilson added 17.
   Central led for very little of the contest, trailing a majority of the first half and staying an average of 3-5 points back for most of the third, not taking its first lead of the second half until early in the fourth. Both teams went back and forth over the final six minutes. 
   The Bulldogs, on the whole, shot the 3 poorly over the course of the night, knocking down just one to Dublin's four in the first half, and only three against seven total. Most of Hancock's early long-range attempts were airballs before Jaylon Hatcher's make from the right corner offered his team a big spark in a first half that repeatedly threatened to get out of hand. 
   Hatcher, who finished with nine, hit his team's only two other triples down the stretch in the second half to help keep Hancock Central within striking distance. But otherwise, the decisive baskets for the Bulldogs came mostly inside, where the stocky Wilson and Lawrence both proved a handful in the post and on the glass for Dublin's frontcourt defenders, who spent most of the game in a 2-3 zone. 
   And that situation got worse when primary rim protector Elijah Davis hit foul trouble, grabbing his fourth early in the final quarter, and ultimately fouling out with roughly two and a half minutes to go. 
   Central scored three important baskets downstairs during his several-minute outage in the early part of the fourth, and went back to the well after he was bounced from the game on a fifth foul trying to block Taylor's driving lay-in, and sending him to the line to complete a three-point play with two minutes to go. 
   Moments later, Wilson drew a foul on a direct post-up to get to the line for free throws that tied the score at 68 with just over a minute left, and then followed a shot for the put-back to reduce Dublin's lead from four to two with inside 30 remaining.
   "We didn't have our best game defensively at all," Smith said. "But I think our guys did a really good job of persevering." 
   Three Irish players made double figures, as Kendell Wade led the green and gold with 17. Tyquan Davis added 15, and Zion Davis 14. Both teams were next to flawless at the foul line, with 10 attempts each. Dublin made eight. Hancock Central hit nine. 
   Taylor, on top of not taking many 3s the entire game, had also not made one all night leading up to the game-winner. And regardless of who's taking it, that type of Hail Mary shot is one you often just have to tip your hat to, Smith said. 
   "If we could do it again, we'd do it the same way. Like most times, that's one out of 15. But 55 feet, running, no time on the clock from a guy who doesn't usually make outside shots, you take your chances." 
   Dublin finishes its season 27-2 overall, after sweeping its 16-game region schedule to claim the outright 4-A title. The top-seeded squad battled past Quitman County and Turner County in the opening rounds of the playoffs, before going on the road to upset No. 1-ranked Drew Charter earlier in the week. 
   At season's end, Baldwin and Hancock Central – the only two teams to get the best of the Irish this year – are both among those who'll be playing for state championships this weekend. Dublin will have to wait another year on that opportunity, after this one was stolen away on an amazing last-second play. 
   "All in all, I'm extremely proud. I just hate that the season ended on a shot like that, because I really think we were good enough to win it all," Smith said. "It's a lesson. We'll get better from it." 
   "As for the shot, all credit to them," he added. "Sometimes you get breaks, and they took advantage. The kid made a big shot. You live with those." 

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