By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
STATESBORO — Disappointment will have to be put on hold, or better yet, erased from the memories of the Effingham County boys.
The Rebels (18-8) begin their journey into the Class AAAAAA state tournament Wednesday at home against Langston Hughes with new hopes and dreams.
“Everybody wanted a region championship, but I guess it wasn’t in the cards,” ECHS coach Jake Darling said. “Luckily, we have another game. It’s a chance to redeem ourselves and a chance to make a run in the state playoffs.”
It’s the first state tournament game at home for the Rebels since beating Tucker 64-55 in the first round in 2017 – ECHS’ last state tournament win.
That year, the Rebels lost a heartbreaker to Brunswick in the region tournament final. If it’s possible, this year’s 54-52 loss to Statesboro at the buzzer in the 2-AAAAAA final stung more.
“We all felt the same pain,” Darling said. “It’s tough to lose on a last-second shot, but it shows every possession counts in a game like this (against Statesboro). We made a couple of mistakes and they came back to bite us at the end.”
The last two weeks have been a continuous rollercoaster ride for ECHS, which has played two overtime games and two two-point decisions in its last five games.
In just the fourth quarter of the region tournament semifinals against Bradwell Institute on Feb. 15, the Rebels blew an eight-point lead, then overcame an eight-point deficit to survive a third straight overtime game with the Tigers.
ECHS had an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter against Statesboro in a quest for its first region title since 2013 — JaKeenan Gant’s junior year — but just one field goal in the final 4:27 stalled the opportunity.
Kam Mikell’s follow-up layup as the buzzer sounded began a wild Statesboro celebration.
“There’s been a lot of close games, but we’ve been playing a lot of good teams and that’s not going to change,” Darling said. “(Langston Hughes’ Region 4) is a tough region to come out of so we’ll have our hands full.”
The third-seeded Panthers from Fairburn (about 20 miles south of Atlanta) won Class AAAAAA state championships in 2017 and 2018.
Hughes is 16-12 this season, but have eight losses by five points or less. Five of the Panthers’ defeats were in region play to Westlake (ranked No. 2 in Class AAAAAA before region tournament play by Score Atlanta) and Tucker (ranked No. 7).
Hughes has balanced scoring, led by 6-foot-7, 225-pound junior forward Jelani Thurman (9.3 ppg., 8.7 rpg.), who already has football offers from Florida State, Georgia Tech, Kentucky and Indiana, according to Internet site 24-7 Sports.