John Bednarowski, MDJ
Walton used its trademark patience, stingy defense and a deft touch from the free throw line to beat Marietta 45-40 Saturday to win its first region championship since the 1988-89 season.
The Raiders (19-5, 7-3) will be the No. 1 seed from Region 3AAAAAAA, and open the Class AAAAAAA playoffs at home against Newnan when the state tournament gets underway Feb. 23 and 24.
“Our motto is when given an opportunity dot be afraid to take it,” coach Bo Abney said. “But sometimes we have to do things the hard way.”
That was the case against the Blue Devils (10-11, 6-3). Walton held a 35-31 lead at the end of the third quarter. Marietta’s Camden Overton made a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter, and then another point wasn’t scored until Izaiyah Nelson converted on 1 of 2 free throws with 52 seconds to play. They were the only points scored in the final 8 minutes and the game went to overtime tied at 35.
For the Raiders, despite being in a nearly 10 minute scoring drought, they had the Blue Devils right where they wanted them. With 2:18 left in overtime, Dylan Pumpian, who scored a game-high 17 points, converted on a layup to put Walton back up 37-35. After the Raiders’ defense came up with a stop, Marietta was forced to start fouling, and it allowed the shooters to put the game away from the foul line. Pumpian, Luka Avaliani and Carson Adler combined to make 8 of 10 free throws while Marietta made only 1 of 3, including missing a the front end of two 1-and-1s. Avaliani finished with 12 points.
“We rely on shooting,” Abney said. “We keep shooting stats in practice. It’s a competition, and we have some good shooters.”
From the start, everyone in the gym quickly realized this was going to be a low-scoring game. The only question seemed to be how low?
With 58 seconds left in the opening quarter, Marietta’s Isaac Jones made a 3-pointer to put the Blue Devils up 7-3. He would make another one at the buzzer to make it 10-5.
Three pointers by Avaliani and Luke Flynn helped Walton go on a 12-4 run in the second quarter to take a 17-14 lead at the half.
Marietta appeared as if it was going to start to pull away in the third quarter when Eric Howard scored eight of his 15 points during a 13-5 run for a 27-22 lead, but Landon Hong’s driving layup over the outstretched arms of Nelson helped spur a 13-4 run to close the quarter, and it got the crowd back in the game, something that would help in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“Our team isn’t a bunch of McDonalds All-Americans,” Abney said. “They grind, they come to work every day, they play defense, they buy into it.”
The victory brought Marietta’s six-game winning streak to an end, and because of a power-rating system, drops it to the region’s No. 3 seed behind North Paulding. The Blue Devils, who will open the playoffs at McEachern, had missed 42 days of basketball activity while quarantining three separate times because of COVID-19 issues, were trying to win its seventh game in 10 days, and pull off the most unlikely region championship in recent memory. While the result wasn’t what coach Markus Hood wanted, he said he knew the team did everything it could during the run.
“We’ve had three full practices since Dec. 19,” he said. “I’m really proud of these guys for hanging in there. They found a way to continue to grow and get better.”