ATHENS — Wearing a sports jacket and tie, Neil Malone walked out of the Athens High locker room with pride.
The smile was wide. His head was high. Everything about the Athens senior's body language said it had been a good night.
Because for Malone and his Athens teammates, it had been.
Playing in front of what Malone called the largest home crowd of his career, the Athens point guard delivered a clutch performance, making 9 of 10 from the foul line in the fourth quarter to send the Golden Eagles past rival East Limestone 60-54 Friday night.
"Everything about tonight was good," Malone said. "Playing in front of a crowd like this, and all of the emotion of the game, I can't think of a better way for our senior night to have gone."
The venue was near capacity. By tipoff of the boys game, fans filled the bleachers on both levels of Athens' gymnasium, and both schools brought large — and creative — student sections that were loud and engaged until the final buzzer sounded.
With the game still in doubt late in the fourth quarter, the venue created a lively atmosphere for a wild finish. When Trey Potts stole a pass at midcourt and delivered a two-handed dunk in transition to give Athens (20-7) a four-point lead with less than a minute remaining, the Golden Eagles' student section erupted, with fans jumping up and down in the bleachers.
After the game, Athens' players went and celebrated with the student section, thanking fans as they filed out of the bleachers.
"In the three years I've been here, this is the largest crowd we've had, by far," Athens coach Stace Tedford said.
"Hopefully, they'll keep coming back, especially for the guys wearing these Athens jerseys, because we've got a team right here that's fun to watch."
In recent years, the Athens-East Limestone rivalry has blossomed, and fierce competition is the norm. The latest chapter followed suit.
East Limestone star Jordon Gandy rallied the Indians back from a double-figure deficit in the first half, scoring 14 of his game-high 17 points in the first and second quarters.
East Limestone led 31-27 at halftime.
Blake Tucker finished with 12 points for East Limestone, and Nick Walsh added 11.
East Limestone opened the second half with a 9-2 run, building an 11-point cushion before Athens' star players delivered a few big plays of their own to rally the Golden Eagles back. The game was tied at 48 apiece with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Trey Potts led Athens with 16 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and four blocked shots, while his older brother, Nathanial, finished with 13 points and 18 rebounds.
But one of the biggest plays of the game won't show up on a boxscore.
With less than two minutes remaining in regulation, Nathanial Potts stood in the lane and took a charge from Gandy, fouling the East Limestone star out of the game.
"In the second quarter, we didn't do a very good job of guarding Gandy," Tedford said. "He's their best player, and you can't leave him alone because he's going to make shots. But played defense much better in the second half — did an outstanding job late in the game. That's what I'm most pleased with."
Gandy's fifth foul and Trey Potts fourth-quarter dunk drew the loudest cheers, but Malone's performance at the foul line determined the outcome. He extended the lead to three with a pair of free throws with 58 seconds remaining, and made two more to put the game out of reach.
Malone finished with 11 points and Jackson Pettus added eight.
"Emotions were running wild out there," Malone said. "With the atmosphere and how loud it was in here, this is a game I'm going to remember. This was the kind of game, as a player, you love to play in."
East Limestone girls 72, Athens 64: Brennan Crabtree poured in 27 points, leading East Limestone to an upset of Class 5A No. 10 Athens.
East Limestone pulled away in the second quarter, outscoring Athens (13-13) 20-8 to take a 35-28 halftime lead.
Rachel Diamond finished with 20 points for the Indians, while Bailey Speer tossed in 12.
Destiny Bailey led Athens with 25 points, while Alliyah Smith tossed in 13.
Contact Justin Graves at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 256-34-2460.
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