For 19 minutes, Gilmer gave Columbia everything it wanted.
For the next 13, the Eagles couldn’t be stopped.
Columbia turned up the defensive pressure and blew open a close game in the second half, beating Gilmer 60-36 in the Class AAAA first round.
When Tanner Reece hit a layup for the Bobcats with about 5 minutes left in the third quarter, Gilmer was down 29-28 and looked like it might just make a run at the three-time defending state champs.
But they finally found an opportunity to employ the defensive strategy they’d been wanting to use the entire game, and they took advantage of it.
“Our plan all along was, we didn’t want them to get into a rhythm and then get comfortable,” Columbia coach Kerry Sandifer said. “We had intended to press from the beginning, but it’s kind of hard when you’re not making shots, and we got off to a slow start. A couple of times, I don’t know if it was jitters, or we were tired, but we just didn’t set up our press. But that was the gameplan all along.”
The pressure took the Bobcats (24-5) out of their offense, turning the ball over nine times in the third quarter – matching their total from the other three quarters combined – and giving Columbia a launching pad for its fastbreak offense.
If they can avoid setting up in the halfcourt, the Eagles (25-3) are glad to do it every chance they get, and the second half offered plenty of transition opportunities.
“We’re not as big as we were in the past, so we can play halfcourt, but it’s not going to be to our advantage,” Columbia guard Taaj Shamsid-Deen said. “Transition is definitely in our favor when we play against other teams.”
Against Gilmer, it was the key to a 19-3 run that turned a one-point lead into a 48-31 advantage early in the fourth quarter, and the Bobcats were basically done.
The defense not only fed the offense, but it also wore down a Gilmer team that won 24 games but didn’t play a top-10 team all season until traveling to Columbia.
“We noticed that they got tired,” Shamsid-Deen said. “So that’s when we said, ‘They’re getting tired, so let’s step it up another notch, let’s keep this going to 20,’ and we kept it there.”
Maurice Rivers and Brice Brown came off the bench to lead all scorers with 12 for Columbia. Shamsid-Deen added 11.