By Doug Gorman
It's been six years since Lovejoy boys basketball fans were treated to a trip to the state tournament.
It's not over yet.
With former head coach Mac McConnell, the last man to lead the Wildcats to the state tournament in the Lovejoy gym to watch, current head coach Rick Francis' squad opened this year's Class AAAAA event with a 78-64 victory against Coffee in a game that was closer than the score made it sound.
The Wildcats only lead 37-34 at the half, before turning it up a notch on both offense and defense in the second half.
"I am happy we are advancing, but because of our performance today, we have to play much better," Francis said. "We have to be more consistent."
Now, Lovejoy faces a second-round challenge on the road in Savannah when they face fifth-ranked Groves Tuesday night.
"We are ready for anything" Francis said. "Whether we go out and execute will be up to us."
Groves (27-1) knocked off M.L. King 70-60 its first-round game.
Lovejoy's contest with Coffee turned into a 3-point shooting display at times as both teams had success with the long-range jump shots.
The Wildcats connected on eight treys, while Coffee stayed in the game by converting 11 of its 3-point attempts.
Coffee took its only lead of the game early in the first quarter when Tevin Gainey made one of the team's 3-pointers to give the Trojans a 3-2 lead.
Jermaine Hough answered for the Wildcats to put them back in the lead at 4-3. Lovejoy never trailed again.
After regaining the lead, Lovejoy found its offense groove. Cameron Solomon connected on two 3-point shots and Greg Taylor and Leroy Merritt answered with one each to help the Wildcats pull away in the opening period.
Merritt's trey gave Lovejoy a 24-15 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Lovejoy's hopes to blow Coffee out of the gym ended when the Wildcats' offense went to sleep in the second quarter.
Treys by Quin Wilson and Gainey twice cut into the Lovejoy lead.
The Trojans also used some clutch free throw shooting to close the gap. Coffee went 6-of-7 from the free throw line in the period to get back in the game.
Twice right before the half, E.J. Calloway tied the game for Coffee. The last time was when he hit two free throws for a 33-33 tie.
Lovejoy led 37-34 at the break.
Solomon led Lovejoy with 29 points, including 21 in the second half. Morris Mitchell added 19 and Justin Tuoyo tossed in 10.
"In the first half, we came out a little bit lethargically," Solomon said. "In the second half, we upped the intensity, because we knew they were not going to let up. We pressured the ball and forced them into turnovers."
Travis Simpson led the Coffee scoring attack with 18 points. Three other player scored in double figures for the Trojans. Justin Sanders added 16, Quin Wilson chipped in 12 and Gainey added 11.
The Wildcats outscored Coffee 17-8 at the end of the third quarter.
Lovejoy pushed its lead back to double digits during the period when its stingy defense kicked in and they took a 54-42 lead.
Solomon helped the Wildcats regain control of the Trojans with an 11-point quarter, including converting two 3-point shots.
Coffee made one more run at Lovejoy when Simpson hit a shot to trim the Wildcats' margin to 59-50. It was the last time the score was below double digits.
In the end, Lovejoy's defense was able to stop Coffee down the stretch.
"We changed up our defense, and were able to come up with some stops" Francis said. "We were then able to convert on the other end."
Mitchell knows what it is going to take to get to the Elite 8, which means winning on the road against Groves.
"For us, we just have to play hard. We don't feel like anybody can beat us if we do that." Mitchell said.