Francis returns to sideline as Lovejoy plays in Elite Eight

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

Wednesday's Class AAAA second round playoff win was very difficult for Lovejoy coach Rick Francis.

He was home while his eighth-ranked team was four hours away playing at No. 4 Bainbridge. Francis had to miss the game while attending to a family illness.

He was in constant contact texting and calling the school's athletic director to get updates.

"I made sure before they left that I expected them to play hard, and focus at the task at hand," Francis said. "We knew Bainbridge would be a hostile place and we wanted to take them out early."

That gameplan worked. The Wildcats jumped out to a 21-point lead to hold on for a 67-59 win to snap Bainbridge's 24-game winning streak. Francis credited assistant coach Rory Welsh for the win.

"Coach Welsh did a great job," Francis said. "The players did a great job. I can't say enough about coach Welsh."

The players said they missed Francis, but had a lot of faith in Welsh, who is very active during practices. Welsh has been an assistant at Lovejoy six of Francis' seven years as head coach.

"We respect all our coaches," junior center Justin Tuoyo said. "We wanted to get a win for coach. Coach Welsh did a great job."

Said Francis: "He knows our system. He is just a chip off the old block. I'm just so proud of him."

It was the first time in three seasons that Bainbridge had lost at home. The Wildcats (25-4) also didn't let Bainbridge's leading scorer Devon Baulkmon beat them.

Although he finished with 26 points, Baulkmon started the game 1-for-9 in the first half for only four points. He had 22 in the second half on 10 of 24 shooting, but it wasn't enough.

"It just wasn't our night," Bainbridge head coach Rickey McCullough told the Albany Herald. "We got behind and got a little frustrated. We didn't guard like we guarded all year long. With a 24-game winning streak, sometimes they get complacent."

The Wildcats hit the road again today as they take on No. 3 Fayette County at 8:30 p.m. in Fort Valley. Although the teams did not play this season, Tuoyo said they are familiar with the Tigers' personnel.

The 6-foot-9 center plays summer ball with several of the Fayette County players, and he also went to about three of their games this season.

"We know a lot about them," he said. "We know there is a lot of talent on their team."