The proverbial monkey is off the back for the Banks County Leopards. A 61-58 final score glowed off the scoreboard, and the final buzzer ended a four-year streak of falling in the Sweet 16. This time, the #6-ranked Leopards (25-4) got over the hump behind a complete team effort against #5-ranked Butler (19-7).
Banks County never trailed in the contest, but despite taking a commanding 32-8 lead early in the second quarter, saw the lead shrunk to a single point twice within the final minutes. Clutch play in the closing seconds gave the Leopards and coach Mike Cleveland their signature win.
“That’s a big win for us,” says Cleveland. “Really really proud of my guys. People around the state – we were told we shouldn’t be here tonight – it really makes me proud of our kids.”
The Leopards were on fire from the opening tip, chalking up a 18-2 run to open the game, and were up 24-8 at the end of the first quarter. While usual suspect Carl Cleveland was going off (2 3-pointers in the first), the second quarter saw other guys step up big. Dakota Orr ignited the building with back-to-back blocks, and then slammed home a dunk to push the lead to 30-8.
It was part of an 8-0 run to open the quarter for the Leopards, who went up 32-8 on Butler. However, the athletic Bulldogs chipped away, and closed the half with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Trayveyon Perry. Still, Banks led 39-23 heading into the locker room.
The momentum from that triple bled over to the second half, as Butler ripped off a quick 12-7 run to cut into the margin. The Bulldogs outscored Banks 18-15 in the quarter, but the Leopards got a boost when Clay Gosnell drew a 3-shot foul and knocked home two from the line before the fourth.
“I never felt comfortable,” said coach Cleveland. “That’s a very good team, and those guys can score in bunches. They made a heck of a comeback, but I like how we bowed our back, got some stops, and got the ball where we needed to at the right time.”
Cleveland told his group at the break to keep focused.
“Never felt comfortable even though we got up real big early,” says Cleveland. “I told the guys [Butler] was coming. That team’s not gonna quit. We had to match their intensity.”
The 13-point lead for the Leopards going into the final frame drew smaller by the second. Butler’s 7-2 run cut the game to single digits, and back-to-back 3-pointers by Adrian Hatcher brought it to 57-51 with about 5 minutes to play. Kedar Bodie then had a layup to cut the deficit to 57-56 before Garrett Presley ended the drought for Banks with a lay-in off a pass from Pierce Martin.
Again Bodie got a bucket in the paint to keep it a one-point game, and Butler got the ball back with a chance to take the lead. A missed jumper in the final seconds was corralled by Cleveland, who hit one of two from the line with 22 seconds left. The Leopards forced a turnover with 5.3 on the clock, and Martin ended up hitting a free throw to ice the game.
Cleveland led all scorers with 26 points and hauled in 13 boards, good for his 27th double-double of the season. Gosnell had a fantastic performance with 15 points to go with 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Martin finished with 9 points, and Dakota Orr 7 points, 10 boards, and 3 blocks.
Butler was led by Quantavious Franklin’s 20 points, followed by Bodie and Hatcher, who both had 11, and Perry with 9.
Banks County advances to its first-ever Elite 8, and will play at home against the winner of the Thomasville/Chattooga game.
Digital Copy of Highlights – Banks vs Butler
Digital Copy of Highlights - Banks vs Butler