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Braves survive Yellow Jacket sting

Feb. 23—Who would have thought the name Markel Hightower would get mention in the lede of a Baldwin High playoff basketball story in 2024?

With foul trouble and injuries playing a factor as the Braves began the GHSA Class AAAA tournament Wednesday, it was players like the junior forward Hightower and guard Trakeon Downing, plus sophomore Deven Nelson snagging a leadership role with the basketball, who keyed Baldwin's tight 59-54 win against Southeast Bulloch High on the James A. Lunsford court.

Baldwin entered the game as the Region 2-AAAA champions, but sat reserve forward Jaylen King, who was injured in the region finals the previous Friday. Southeast Bulloch's Yellow Jackets entered Milledgeville as the No. 4 seed of Region 3-AAAA and with a .500 overall record but took advantage of numerous Baldwin mishaps to stay close — even be ahead on the scoreboard — during the fourth quarter.

One player in particular experiencing foul trouble was senior guard Tre Lawrence, and it led to his minutes being extremely limited. Baldwin's offense was non-existent to start every quarter for about two minutes until a spark came from somebody like another senior, Isaiah Dennis.

In fact, Dennis scored all 16 of the Baldwin points in the first quarter starting with a corner 3-pointer. His teammates were getting shots off, but Dennis was the only one connecting, so he was the one they looked for in transition. Dennis made a second 3-pointer at 2:35, and when Downing first checked into the game, his first action was to get an outlet to Dennis for one of his three transition baskets in a row.

Baldwin's lead after the first quarter was 16-8, but with Dennis taking a break the home team didn't add to the total in the second. Southeast Bulloch pulled to within four, 16-12, when Dennis returned to the court at the 5:25 mark. But he wasn't the one to get the Braves back in a scoring rhythm, for starting forward Omari Woodard had the first field goal on a put-back. Woodard then threw a long outlet, this one to fellow starter Karez Demory making it 20-12.

The Yellow Jackets never backed down, though, coming back with a 5-0 run stopped by Dennis' first basket of the quarter. Nelson, Lawrence and Woodard all had steals, but Baldwin was having trouble securing the basketball and gave many takeaways right back. The Braves led 25-20 when Woodard grabbed another offensive rebound and assisted the 2 from Nelson.

Using a turnover, though, Southeast Bulloch brought the margin back down to five, 27-22, at halftime.

Baldwin's first basket of the third quarter didn't come until 5:20 (by Dennis), but since the visitors only had foul shots in that time the hosts still clung to a lead. Five points continued to be the largest margin for the Braves, and Dennis made the only 3-pointer of the period (assisted by Nelson) at 2:40 for 36-31. Offensive fouls were a Baldwin problem, one giving the Jackets a chance at a tie with under two minutes to play. Nelson came through defensively near the basket, and later Woodard would stick a turnaround jumper.

To end the quarter, the Jackets scored on the offensive glass for 40-37 and regained possession on a traveling violation with six seconds to play. Demory stood tall with the defensive stop to keep the Braves in front to start the fourth. Southeast Bulloch had the basketball first, but Woodard blocked the first attempt.

But with another lackluster offensive start, the Braves found themselves behind 43-42 two minutes into play. Lawrence, after a long time on the bench, got back in the game and connected on his first shot. It would also be his last shot.

So it was Nelson in charge, and his steal at midcourt led to an assist to Dennis breaking a 45-45 tie. A turnover, though, put the Jackets in front 49-47.

In all, there were six lead changes in the fourth, and Baldwin helped its cause by making nine free throws. Woodard had another key defensive moment, a steal that led to 2 by Demory. The next big steal, with Baldwin up 53-51, came from Hightower.

In addition to all the foul shots, Demory hit a clutch top-of-the-key jumper in a 6-0 Baldwin run. With his team up 57-51, Hightower blocked a shot. After the Jackets' 3-pointer at 1:11, Hightower found Woodard for an assist with six seconds left.

NO PROBLEMS FOR BRAVETTES

Even the coaches from Southeast Bulloch High admitted before Wednesday's game at No. 1 Baldwin High to having what amounted to a junior varsity team.

Giving up points in only the first and fourth quarters (the second half only being 12 game minutes), Kizzi Walker's Bravettes showed little mercy in winning the GHSA AAAA first round basketball matchup 84-5.

Walker did spread the minutes out. In a 30-point first quarter, Kassidy Neal had two assists, JaMya Easley had three steals and Jasmine Williams nailed a 3-pointer among the starters. Freshman center Suri Clark then scored eight points off the bench while senior Morgan Ruff had two steals.

At halftime, the score was 52-2 as Williams and Madison Ruff each had three steals in the second quarter.

Janaye Walker opened second half play sinking a 3-pointer and throwing an assist to another Bravette reserve, Donasia Cannie. Again, it was a scoreless period for visiting Southeast Bulloch, and in just six minutes the Baldwin lead went to 73-2.