The state championship atmosphere was evident as the final buzzer sounded on a 54-47 Great Falls victory over long-time nemesis Calhoun County on Tuesday at the Blythewood High School gymnasium.
The fans rushed the court in celebration as Great Falls advanced to the Class A Upper State finals after rallying from a fourth-quarter deficit against the Saints, winners of the state championship four out of the past five years.
But more than celebrating, Great Falls was letting out four years of frustrations by snapping a four-game playoff losing streak, including a blowout loss to the Saints in the 2009 state finals.
"Finally!" was what Great Falls coach John Smith yelled to his assistants and one of his former players. "It is about time!"
Finally - even after the Saints rallied furiously to come back from a double-digit deficit in the third quarter.
Leading 29-20 at the half, the Red Devils appeared to take control, opening the third quarter with five of the first seven points for a 34-22 advantage. The Saints, known for their scrappy full-court defense, forced two straight turnovers to trigger a 10-2 run.
Shamir Jeffries, a University of South Carolina football recruit, scored on an offensive rebound. Mark Irick followed with a layup. and then drove the lane for another lay-in. Malik Brown pounded the offensive glass for another basket, cutting the Great Falls lead to four points, 36-32, with 1:32 remaining.
Shaquille Lamar stopped the Red Devil drought with a short jumper, but the Saints closed the quarter with Brandon Thomas and Jeffries scoring consecutive layups off turnovers.
Great Falls finally saw the lead disappear on the first Calhoun County possession of the fourth quarter. Thomas drained a long 3-pointer, and after another Red Devil turnover, Irick drove the lane for another hoop for a 41-38 Saint lead with 7:33 remaining.
Shaquille Lamar picked off a steal and layup, but Jeffries added another interior hoop, keeping the Saints ahead by three.
That, however, was when the Great Falls defense stepped up. After a timeout, the Red Devils regained composure and began to steal momentum, forcing a series of Calhoun County turnovers.
"We just had to calm ourselves down," Great Falls forward Xavier Holmes said about the timeout at that point. "We began playing at their pace. We were trying to dribble through their press instead of trying to pass against it."
Holmes, who finished with 19 points, scored on the inside to cut the lead to one. After forcing two straight turnovers, the Red Devils regained the lead when Simpson netted a short jumper. Holmes picked up another steal and drove in for the layup and a 46-43 Red Devil lead with 3:09 remaining.
Ernest Talford netted one of two free throws after being fouled. Calhoun County responded with Irick connecting on a 3-pointer, pulling the Saints to within one point at 47-46.
Simpson answered for Great Falls with a jumper with 2:06 remaining. The Red Devil defense came up huge on the next two Calhoun County possessions with a blocked shot and a tie-up for a jumper ball with 1:09 remaining.
From that point, Great Falls elected to spread the court to force Calhoun County to foul. After suffering from a 3-of-15 free-throw performance in the first half, the Red Devils made 5 of 8 down the stretch to finally end the Calhoun County playoff hex.
"I knew that Calhoun County was going to make a run, so we had to be ready for it," Smith said. "The big difference was that we showed maturity after they took the lead.
"The last five or six years, Calhoun County was the dominant team in Class A. In the past when they made runs like that, we were unable to regroup. Fortunately, we were able to come up with big defensive plays which turned the momentum in our favor."
Calhoun County coach Zam Fredrick's only explanation for the loss was "too many unforced turnovers."
"I don't mind us missing shots," Frederick said. "But we just turned the ball over. Also, we did not play smart after grabbing the lead. We just did not take care of the ball."
Great Falls, 23-2, will play Abbeville on Saturday at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville for the Class A Upper State finals.
Calhoun County ends the season at 23-4.
GREAT FALLS 54, CALHOUN COUNTY 47
Calhoun County -- Tamaz Charles 8, Brandon Thomas 9, Malik Brown 5, Dekembie Brown 1, Shamir Jeffries 13, Mark Irick 11.
Great Falls -- Shaquille Lamar 6, Shaquille Simpson 10, Ernest Talford 9, Jemarcus Culp 3, Xavier Holmes 19, Alstevis Squirewell 7.
3-pointers -- Calhoun County 1 (Thomas 1), Great Falls 1 (Squirewell 1). Team fouls -- Calhoun County 23, Great Falls 11. Fouled out -- Thomas (CC), Squirewell (GF).
Records: Calhoun County 23-4; Great Falls 23-2.