As Eagle's Landing led South Atlanta, the No. 1 team in the state, in the finals of the Region 4-AAA tournament Monday, players on the Golden Eagles bench locked arms, leaned forward and held their breath. A year ago, Eagle's Landing had won just six games. Now, they were on the verge of an improbable upset.
With the game tied at 46 and time winding down, South Atlanta forward Dominique McKoy who had brought the Hornets back by driving repeatedly into the Golden Eagles frontcourt launched a deep three-point attempt and missed. But Hornets guard James Arnold in one motion caught the loose rebound and made a short floater to give South Atlanta a dramatic 48-46 victory and another region championship.
Eagle's Landing (18-10) was left to grapple with the emotional waves of their region tournament.
After a 19-year absence, the Golden Eagles qualified for the state tournament and reached the stage of the region championship for the first time in school history. They handled a 10-point halftime deficit, an injury to all-region guard Javan Wells that hampered his effectiveness and the aura of invincibility that has defined South Atlanta.
But that did little to assuage them after Monday night's loss. As South Atlanta players and fans celebrated in delirium on the court after Arnold's game-winner, Eagle's Landing players sat silent in disbelief on the bench. They leaned against the walls outside the locker room afterward without speaking a word, the pain still obvious from their sullen faces.
"We wanted this so bad," said Eagle's Landing junior Verdis Morgan, who finished with 21 points.
"They feel a little cheated, just with the way it ended," Crump said. "They're a little angry and ready to prepare."
Indeed, a day later, the task turned quickly toward preparing for the Golden Eagles' first-round contest Friday at home against Dougherty (11-12). The Trojans from Albany are in the state tournament for the 11th time in the past 12 seasons, according to the Georgia High School Basketball Project.
Crump and his players were united in their belief that Monday's heartbreaking loss to South Atlanta can aid the Golden Eagles going into the state tournament.
"It helps us a lot," Eagle's Landing freshman Desmond Ringer said. "We know we should've won that game and we're just ready to go back to practice, going to work hard and get after it in the state tournament."
"It's making us even hungrier," Morgan said. "We're just going to go hard every time. Whatever team we play, they're just going to get it. We're not taking anybody lightly."
Eagle's Landing didn't possess the overall sheer size of South Atlanta's frontcourt, even with the 6-foot-8 presence of Ringer. Instead, Morgan and the Golden Eagles put their speed and savvy to good use.
Morgan led the effort to bring Eagle's Landing back from a 23-13 halftime deficit against South Atlanta. He scored 17 points in the second half by finding space in the Hornets' zone defense and driving to the basket for a layup or foul.
"He's a very good offensive player, very versatile," Crump said. "We basically put him in the middle of their zone and told him to go to work. He did exactly what we asked him to do. He was a warrior for us."
Eagle's Landing didn't execute on offense in the first half to its normal standard, missing on several open looks under the basket that might have altered the outcome Monday. Wells contributed just six points with a tender ankle.
But whatever questions remain for Eagle's Landing going into Friday's historic game, it has already overcome much to reach this stage.
"These guys have come so far," Crump said. "Our goal was to get to state and they accomplished that. We're one possession from a region championship. It meant a lot to be there. They feel like they belong."