Panthers earn trip to Final 4

Published 4:59 pm Friday, February 24, 2012

Georgiana School’s Rodney Cheatham drives to the basket during the Panthers’ 70-58 win over McIntosh High School Friday in the finals of the South Region Tournament in Mobile. Advocate Staff/Michael Rodgers

MOBILE — After exorcising the McIntosh Demons, the Georgiana Panthers are bound for Birmingham and the Final Four.

The Panthers led McIntosh 48-43 after three quarters, and a combination of strong free throw shooting and smart decisions earned Georgiana a 70-58 win in the finals of the South Region Tournament.

“I’ve had these kids for five years now, and they’re a resilient bunch,” said head coach Kirk Norris. “When the game got tight, I trusted them to make good decisions.”

Norris said he knew from watching tape that McIntosh was an athletic team that liked to press on the defensive end.

“After I saw how we played defense on them in the first quarter, I knew we had a chance to beat them,” he said.

The Panthers pulled ahead early, but McIntosh fought back to cut the lead to 13-11 after the first quarter.

The second quarter was close, with Georgiana holding a 29-25 lead at halftime.

Georgiana was only 2-for-7 from behind the arc in the first half, but the Panthers went 2-for-3 in the second half. Georgiana also shot twice as many free throws in the second half, 22, compared to the first half, 11. That was due to the aggressive play of Lee Curry and Rodney Cheatham combined with the strong outside shooting of Keon Binion.

Many of Georgiana’s points came in transition after breaking McIntosh’s full-court press.

“We’re a pressing team too,” Norris said. “We’ve pressed all year, and we work on it every day.  Our players see it in practice.”

Norris said he only employed the press a few times during the game in order to help keep his team’s legs fresh. Defensively, the Panthers held McIntosh to 2-for-11 on 3-pointers in the second half.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Georgiana pulled out to a 10-point lead, but the game was far from over. With under a minute to play, McIntosh cut the lead to 63-57, but two free throws from Binion helped extend the lead.

With 19.5 seconds to play, two more free throws from Adrian Rich pushed the lead to 68-58 and chants of “Birmingham” started going up from the Georgiana fans.

Binion was the team’s leading scorer with 20 points, and Cheatham scored a career-high 17 points.  Rich also added 11 points.

Rickey Everett pulled in nine rebounds, while both Rich and Justin Oikle had six boards.

“For my senior year, I just didn’t want it to end so soon,” Binion said. “I wanted to play hard and help my teammates out.”

Cheatham, Rich, Curry and Binion were named to the All-Region team.

The Panthers will play the winner of the Northwest Regional at BJCC Arena in Birmingham at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.