The stage was set.
Senior night at Perry, the regular-season finale. And coming to town, undefeated Upson-Lee, perhaps one of the top 10 teams in the state regardless of class.
That stage, before Tuesday, had Perry with one GHSA Region 2-4A loss, so the game could have been for a share of the regular-season region title.
Alas, Tuesday came, and Mary Persons got revenge for an 63-48 loss on Jan. 13 with a 74-61 win at Perry.
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The Panthers got off to a slow start, not helped by point guard Jake Smith coming back from the flu. But that was only part of the problem.
“What went wrong?” Perry head coach Brett Hardy said. “Well, I guess Cam Holden decided to score 36 points. That’s probably what went wrong. We didn’t box him out, but he played at a whole different level.”
That dropped Perry to two losses in the region, two games behind Upson-Lee in the loss column and one ahead of Mary Persons. Had the Panthers won, then Friday night’s game would be been a tremendous battle with much more on the line.
There still should be some electricity, considering it’s senior night for Perry, which wants to seal second place for the region tournament and lock in a spot in the state tournament. And, of course, there’s that goose egg on the right side of Upson-Lee’s record.
“I think we’re approaching it it as the underdog,” Hardy said. “They’re 24-0. We have a chance to do something nobody else has done all year. So if you can’t get up for that...”
But the Panthers have to step up. They spent much of Tuesday’s game on the comeback trail and did pull within four in the fourth quarter but ran out of gas.
And they don’t enter what is still a quality showdown with much momentum, having lost 55-53 on Saturday at Class 1A Dooly County, which is only 9-14.
Upson-Lee head coach Darrell Lockhart, who won his 200th game in early January, know that Perry isn’t a team to give in, as he recalled from the Knights’ 58-52 win Jan. 17.
The Knights led 36-20 at halftime and 47-29 after three.
“We played it all wrong,” Lockhart said. “We kinda coasted through that game. At the end, (Hardy) put a press on us and we didn’t handle it well, and we had to fight to the end and hold on.
“We took our foot off the gas, and next thing you know, we couldn’t stop them from coming.”
Being undefeated can be a difficult proposition, especially with overconfidence. But Lockhart said the Knights are avoiding that.
“We’re listening, I think,” he said. “We’re a young team. Our coaches have been around them all their lives. But I think we’re listening.”
Upson-Lee’s rotation of about eight players is made up more of underclassmen then seniors, so there are a few things youth can bring.
“We’re playing OK,” said Lockhart, whose team is led by Tye Fagan, Zyrice Scott and Travon Walker. “I’m impatient when it comes down to the silly stuff. We’re making a lot of silly mistakes.”
But they’re surviving them. Three of the four wins decided by fewer than 10 points have come against quality teams: Taylor County, Northside and Perry. Griffin is 4-19.