The shots weren't falling early for Stephen Decatur in the 3A East region finals against Centennial on Saturday night, but it was the Seahawks' consistency on the defensive end that ultimately proved to be the difference in helping the program earn its first region championship since 2010.
Stephen Decatur held the visiting Eagles to just 47 points — the team's second lowest offensive output of the season — and used a big second half to pull away for a convincing 65-47 victory in front of a sold out crowd.
"That's us, we've been playing defense like that all year and that's our motto, win the game on that end of the floor," Stephen Decatur coach Bryon Johnson said. "It was a very good and well coached (Centennial) team over there and it was one of those nights where we were struggling making shots, but I kept telling them that if we just continued to play defense we would eventually start to wear them down. And that's exactly what we did."
Torrey Brittingham led the way with 15 points for a Stephen Decatur (23-2) team that had five guys finish in double figures. Brittingham was particularly big during the first half, where he scored nine of his points to help make sure his team held a 24-22 lead at the break.
"We just kept battling and I think it was just one of those things where none of us wanted to go home this early, so we tried to do anything we could to make sure our run didn't stop here," Brittingham said. "We got through the first half and then turned it up in the second."
For Centennial (17-8), which saw its bid for a second consecutive 3A state title fall short, Elijah White (11 points) and Tom Brown (10) led the way offensively. The team dug itself an early hole — trailing 11-2 at the end of the first quarter — and even with several substantial runs in the second quarter to tighten things, was unable to ever grab a lead in the game.
"We were coming into a tough place to play and I thought we needed to try and get to the rack early to try and get loose and set the tone, but our shot selection just wasn't where it needed to be," Hollwedel said. "Now, our second quarter was a great quarter. Our shot selection was better and we rebounded the ball better, but we just weren't able to sustain that.
"In that second half, they physically set the tone and that's what I thought allowed them to create that separation."
In the second quarter, Centennial had gotten itself back into the game thanks to a balanced attack that saw six different guys score. The team scored eight unanswered points toward the end of that first half to actually tie the game at 22-22 with six seconds to go.
But Stephen Decatur got itself some momentum on a put-back basket by Keyon Eley (10 points) as time expired to take a two-point lead into intermission.
Then, to open the third quarter, the Seahawks carried over the momentum to go on a 13-3 run to take the team's first double-digit lead of the night, 37-25. Keve Aluma (12 points) had three lay-ups during the spurt.
"Our crowd really got under us and we started making shots," Brittingham said. "We've really been a second half team all year, so that really wasn't much of a surprise that we started playing better."
Centennial never got closer than eight points the rest of the way. Stephen Decatur issued the knock-out blow early in the fourth quarter with a 15-1 run that was capped by a Brittingham jumper with 4:03 remaining.
By the two-minute mark, Centennial emptied its bench and Stephen Decatur eventually closed out a victory that sent its student section spilling onto the floor to celebrate.
"It means a lot to the program. The last time we went (2010) my son actually played and I was just a spectator, so now it's a great feeling to be going as a coach," "This is what it's all about, trying to put banners up on that wall.
"Two more games to go, though. Two more games."
Stephen Decatur advances to play Seneca Valley in the 3A state semifinals on Thursday.
For Centennial, while disappointed in the season-ending loss, Hollwedel said it was a great journey with this group this season.
"They know the expectation for us is to win every game they play and they embraced it. They fought through some adversity and the fact that every game this season, everyone wanted to knock us off as the defending state champions," Hollwedel said. "Our new guys, they inherited that as being a part of the program and I'm exceptionally proud of the way these kids represented themselves all year.
"It took a little while to gel early, but we really came together to make a great run in the second-half of the year up until tonight."
Stephen Decatur 65, Centennial 47
SD (23-2): Brittingham 15, Aluma 12, McKenzie 11, Eley 10, Johnson 10, Mills 4, Kevon Voyles 3.
C (17-8): White 11, Brown 10, Merkey 9, Addisu 5, Williams 4, Smith 4, Fowler 2, Fant 2.