By Zach Shugan
ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Despite a whirlwind of a 2020-21 season, even more so than the average team endured in an unprecedented year, the St. Francis boys basketball team will have the chance to defend its title as back-to-back Reg. 6-A Private champions.
Three-seed St. Francis won 68-60 over two-seed King’s Ridge in the region semifinals Thursday night, led by a combined 51 points from senior Jusaun Holt and junior Seth Hubbard. With the win, the Knights earned a date with one-seed Mount Pisgah in the region championship on Saturday. They also secured homecourt advantage in the first round of the state playoffs for the ninth year in a row.
“Just to be back in the region championship is a great accomplishment,” St. Francis head coach Drew Catlett said. “[King’s Ridge] has some good players, and Bob [Martin] has done a great job there. They’re going to be a force in our region. I’m excited for him and what he’s doing, but our guys grinded.”
Reaching the region championship is a great accomplishment for any team any year, but it surely felt even sweeter for St. Francis considering the obstacles it overcame on its way to another region championship game.
After entering the season as the back-to-back state champs and top-ranked team in Class A-Private, the Knights had to forfeit their first seven games for playing with an ineligible player. Not only did they lose that player, a starter who had transferred to the school prior to the season, but they also lost one of their top returning scorers in Jordan Brown, a junior who transferred to Chattahoochee in December.
On top of losing two starters and having to forfeit its first seven games, St. Francis went 45 days without playing a game in the middle of the season due to quarantines of its own and its opponents.
The Knights might have seemed down and out with an 0-7 record, including 0-5 in region play, but they’re still standing, still one win away from claiming a third consecutive region title.
“I kept telling them along the way ‘We’re the defending region champs. Until someone beats us, we’re still the region champs. So we got to go out there and play like we’re the best team and play with confidence and defend,'” Catlett said. “The group stuck together. We stuck together.”
Just as the regular season went, it wasn’t smooth sailing the whole way in Thursday night’s win for St. Francis. The Knights had to mount a double-digit comeback to leave their neighbor’s gym with the dub.
“They started out getting what they wanted, and they were kicking our butts,” Catlett said.
King’s Ridge had all the momentum early after taking a 23-12 lead in the opening quarter of the region semifinal game.
St. Francis regrouped in the second quarter, as Holt and Hubbard began finding their groove offensively and the Knights began increasing the pressure defensively. The Knights were able to cut King’s Ridge’s lead to two points, 33-31, before halftime.
King’s Ridge held onto the lead entering the fourth quarter, although it took a three pointer by sophomore Isaac Martin to put the Tigers in front, 41- 39, in the final minute of the quarter.
The fourth quarter rolled around, and St. Francis made its move on King’s Ridge. The Knights opened the quarter on a 15-6 run in a few minutes of game time to take a 54-47 lead over the Tigers. From there, the Knights just had to hold on to their lead for the final four minutes, mainly by hitting their free throws, which they were successful doing so 19 of 25 attempts on the night.
“That’s a gut-check win when you’re down 13 or 15 and are able to come back and cut it to two at halftime,” Catlett said. “The third quarter was a little nip and tuck, and we were able to make plays down the stretch. It’s a great feeling for our guys.”
St. Francis (13-8) will play at Mount Pisgah (21-6) for the region championship on Saturday. The winner will also be guaranteed homecourt advantage through the first two rounds of the upcoming state playoffs.
King’s Ridge (19-5) will play Lakeview Academy in a consolation game Saturday, with the winner earning a three seed in the upcoming state playoffs.
St. Francis Knights
Jusaun Holt (Sr.) – 26 pts, 8 reb, 4 asst, 2 blk
Seth Hubbard (Jr.) – 25 pts, 2 reb, 2 asst
Kai Simmons (Sr.) – 12 pts, 5 reb, 1 blk
Drew Robinson (Jr.) – 4 pts, 1 reb, 2 asst
Davell Wright (So.) – 1 pts, 1 reb, 1 blk
Toby Gaynes (Sr.) – 3 reb, 2 asst
Blake Thompson (So.) – 1 reb
King’s Ridge Tigers
Micah Hoover (So.) – 16 pts, 11 reb
Isaac Martin (So.) – 13 pts, 2 reb, 5 asst
Liam Thomas (Jr.) – 12 pts, 2 reb, 2 asst, 1 blk
Christian Stoner (Sr.) – 10 pts, 5 reb, 2 asst
Carson Wolfel (Jr.) – 6 pts, 1 reb, 2 asst, 1 blk
Dylan Sears (Jr.) – 3 pts
Davis Dunn (Sr.) – 1 asst