The Lakeside High School basketball team put on quite a show last week at Butler High School.
Sophomore Matt Scott scored 43 points for the Panthers, and Lakeside had the ranked Bulldogs on the ropes in the Tuesday night Region 3-AAAA showdown.
Butler escaped with an 85-79 overtime win, and Lakeside's first-year coach Richie Carnes wasn't celebrating a moral victory.
"We can't seem to pull one out at the end," Carnes said. "We played our butts off, but you can't be satisfied. I told the kids no one remembers if you came close. They only remember who won."
The Panthers have suffered a slew of near misses - Lakeside has gone into overtime in five games this season but managed only one win in overtime. Also, Burke County edged the Panthers 55-54 in an early-season contest.
On the plus side, Lakeside has beaten Josey and Glenn Hills.
Despite Lakeside's record dropping to 6-13 after the loss at Butler, Carnes and the Panthers aren't pushovers anymore.
That's one Lakeside victory that can't be denied.
"One Richmond County coach told me to win as many games as I can in Columbia County, because when we crossed the county line there were going to be a lot of blowouts," Carnes said. "That's something we have to change, and I want to help change that attitude."
Turning the corner
There has been a prevailing attitude that in Columbia County, basketball was just a sport to kill time between football and baseball seasons.
And the hardwood was a place where Richmond County teams were the killers.
This season, those perceptions are changing.
"I think Columbia County basketball has turned the corner. All the teams are competitive, and we couldn't necessarily say that the last few years," Greenbrier Lady Wolfpack coach Garrett Black said.
"Two years ago I was helping coach the baseball team, and we had a game at Laney," he recalled. "We were playing next to Druid Park; all five basketball courts were filled with kids of all ages, and there were only about three people watching the baseball game. In Richmond County, basketball is like baseball is in Columbia County."
The Lady Pack has experienced its share of disappointment this season, including three one-point losses, but Black sees a silver lining.
"I'm real positive about basketball in Columbia County right now. We're holding our ground this year," he said. "The bottom line is, the Richmond County teams aren't looking at their schedules, circling Columbia County games, and chalking them up in the win column anymore."
Columbia County isn't dominating the local basketball scene, but there have been more close games than routs, and the consensus is that Columbia County has some of the best players in the CSRA this season.
Along with Lakeside's Scott, Aris Verrett and Matt Josephson, there's John Harris, Kendrick Davis and Teddy Ingram at Evans, Eric Marshall and Tommy McKinney at Greenbrier, Lee Jones at Augusta Christian and Harlem's Domonique Brown and Chris Williams.
There also are standouts on the girls' side, led by guards Toya Coard and Nichole Bennett, Kiley Smith at Evans, Erica Johnson at Greenbrier, Laura Tam and LaToya Johnson at Harlem, Melissa Wright at Augusta Christian and Rebecca Smith at Augusta Prep.
Heading into the final week of the regular season (excluding results from this weekend's games, which were played after The News Times deadline), nine of the county's 12 teams are positioned to have better records than they did last season.
The Harlem boys and girls, the Lakeside boys, and the Evans girls all have already won more games this season than in their previous court campaigns.
Last season, Columbia County high school basketball teams combined for an overall record of 122-186. This season, the 12 prep squads had posted a 97-140 record through Tuesday action last week.
The comparative records seem to indicate only marginal improvement, but other factors point to a much better performance this season than last.
The 2000-01 Evans Knights posted a school-record 19 wins, but that senior-laden squad was expected to excel, even though Evans competed in Region 4-AAAAA, which features some tough Atlanta-area teams.
The Knights lost nine players to graduation this season, yet were still a respectable 10-10 heading into the 2001-02 stretch run.
"I've been really pleased. We're right at .500, but we're as competitive as we can be in a very, very strong region," Evans coach Kevin Kenny said. "The rest of the schedule is favorable for us. Hopefully we can wind up with a winning record."
Kenny has led the Knights to winning record in four of his five seasons at Evans.
The Greenbrier girls also were coming off a milestone season - the Lady Wolfpack won more games last season (13) than any basketball team in school history, and despite losing leading scorer Kellie Tiller, Greenbrier's record was at 9-11 last week.
Additionally, the team won back-to-back Region 3-AAA games this season for the first time.
In the private school ranks, both the Augusta Christian and Augusta Prep girls have experienced dropoffs this season, but each squad has a chance to reach 10 wins. They also have promising futures - the Lady Lions have only two seniors (Wright and Lindsey Hardy), while the Lady Cavaliers have seven freshman playing varsity ball.
Then there's the Augusta Christian boys - with two Class AAA championships and five Region 4-AAA crowns since 1996, the Lions are among the elite in the Georgia Independent Schools Association and are expected to challenge for region and state titles again this season.
While this might be a vintage year for basketball in Columbia County, better things might be brewing.
"We have some good young talent here, and the teams should do really well in the CSRA in the coming years," Kenny says. "The players are doing more in the summer, like competing in leagues and going to camps. The recreation department is doing a good job with its summer leagues, and the county coaches are doing more to promote the sport.
"It takes time to get the level of play up in basketball, but we're definitely headed in the right direction."
Greenbrier's Garrett Black said he believes the current success could reap rewards down the road.
"The interest is picking up. We need more players participating in tryouts, and the higher numbers come from positive things happening in the program."
Next week, region tournaments begin for local high school teams, and Columbia County squads could make some noise.
Since Greenbrier opened in 1996, only one Columbia County public school team has advanced to the state playoffs - the Harlem Lady Bulldogs made it in 2000.
That could change this season, according to Kenny.
"All four county (public school boys) teams have the personnel to win games in the region tournaments," he said. "Come tournament time, anything could happen. It would be good for the county to get some teams in the state playoffs."
For Lakeside's Carnes, earning a state playoff berth wouldn't ease the pain of the games that got away in 2001-02. But reaching the state tournament can present a new, and bigger, opportunity in the future.
"I feel like we should have won more games, and our players feel that way, too," Carnes said. "It seems farfetched, but the ultimate goal is to win the state championship. If these kids come along, and if their hearts are in it, there's no reason it can't be done."
Moving on up?
Columbia County basketball team's comparative records from last season and this season (through Jan. 30)
Boys: last season 26-4; current record 18-3
Girls: last season 17-12; current record 7-14
Boys: last season 4-20; current record 4-17
Girls: last season 14-11; current record 7-14
Boys: last season 19-8; current record 10-10
Girls: last season 4-22; current record 5-15
Boys: last season 4-21; current record 11-7
Girls: last season 0-23; current record 5-12
Boys: last season 8-16; current record 7-13
Girls: last season 13-14; current record 9-11
Boys: last season 5-19; current record 6-13
Girls: last season 8-16; current record 8-11
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