By Jeffery Armstrong
SAVANNAH - The Riverdale Raiders were Region 4-AAAAA's last hope for a boys team to advance in the state playoffs and they played a stellar game from start to finish, smashing the hometown Johnson High Atom Smashers 70-52 Saturday night in Class AAAAA first-round action.
Lovejoy, Carver-Columbus and the Fayette County boys all lost here this weekend, but Riverdale (19-10) came out determined to buck that trend. The Raiders sank 10 of 23 shots in the first half, including five 3-pointers, to sprint to a 26-15 lead over Johnson at the half.
The iron was unkind for Johnson in the first half, as the team only hit 4-of-17 shots from the field. All six of their second quarter points came on free throws.
The Raiders also played well despite having heavy hearts. The players found out early Saturday morning that their schoolmate, track athlete and friend, Marcus Johnson, was shot and killed in Atlanta late Friday night.
"We wanted to come out and dedicate this game to him," said Demarius Patrick, who was Johnson's best friend. "As senior leaders, we wanted to do what we could for him. We wanted to play well and take care of business."
Johnson (20-8) shot better in the second half, but it couldn't stop Riverdale on defense as the Raiders outscored the Atom Smashers 22-12 in the third quarter. A three-point play by freshman center Gani Lawal gave Riverdale its biggest lead at that point, 31-15. Johnson then pressured Riverdale, causing three straight turnovers en route to an 8-0 run to get within eight at 31-23. But Mike Wisdom scored six straight points to give the Raiders the lead for good at 37-23 and Riverdale opened its biggest lead of the game at 48-27 heading into the fourth quarter.
Johnson pressured Riverdale again in the fourth, cutting a 21-point lead to 10 at 52-42 with 4:16 remaining in regulation. But Lawal sealed the game in the next minute and a half, scoring four straight points and getting a huge blocked shot to keep Riverdale's lead at 12, 56-44, with 2:30 left in the game.
"I just do what I can to help the team win - that's what our coach has me in the game to do," said Lawal. "I support my teammates and they support me. We're like a family."
Riverdale (19-10) sank 11 of 13 free throws down the stretch to put the game out of reach. Sean Hightower led Riverdale with 18 points and passed the 1,000-point mark for his career. Lawal finished with 16 points, Trent Mitchell added 14 and Wisdom had 11 for the Raiders.
"This was a terrific win on the road for us. We played very well and I'm real excited for the guys," said Riverdale head coach David Boyd. "We were very well prepared tonight. We came down early, had a good practice at Savannah High and played extremely well in the game."
Riverdale advances to play Tift County next week in second-round state playoff action in Macon, a city that's a "home-away-from-home" for Boyd.
"My teams in the past have had much success in Macon," he said. "I'm looking forward to going back there."