In its first year of existence, Denmark’s boys basketball team has shown itself to be at the level of its region, having beaten almost every team in its region heading into Thursday night.
Except one: Blessed Trinity. On Jan. 15, Denmark had a great chance to down the Titans during their second meeting, with Sutton Smith knocking down a game-tying shot to send that game into overtime. Denmark couldn’t finish on that night, though, ending their regular season series with the Titans without a victory.
For their third meeting, the stakes were much higher, with a trip to the Region 7-4A finals on the line. For the Danes, it meant even more than that.
“They got us both times in the regular season, so we knew that this was kind of going to be a payback game for us,” Smith said. “We all wanted it.”
After an extremely slow offensive start by both teams on Thursday, Smith and the Danes eventually began to click, and after a back-and-forth second half, Denmark finally came away with their coveted win over the Titans, 46-43, at Chestatee High School in Gainesville.
The win secures a home state playoff game for the Danes in just their first season. Denmark will play the winner of Marist and West Hall in the region finals.
“It feels really good just to see the guys' hard work start paying off,” Denmark head coach Tyler Whitlock said. “We had a lot of things that we kept harping on that we felt were weaknesses for us. I think we've defensively been able to shore up some of those things, and I think all the hard work they put into that showed tonight.”
The first half was full of missed scoring opportunities on both sides. In Denmark’s case, those missed chances mostly came in the form of missed free throws. Those mistakes put the Danes in a hole, with Blessed Trinity jumping out to an early 6-0 lead with five minutes left in the first quarter.
After Sutton Smith hit one of two free throws for the Danes’ first point, Denmark began to close the gap a bit, with Adonis Tolbert getting a putback under the basket before Smith made two more attempts at the line. After a nice pass from Joseph Scott just beyond the reach of two Titan defenders, Karson Kinnevy scored to cut Blessed Trinity’s lead to 8-7 after one.
The game continued to be a low-scoring one in the second quarter. After Blessed Trinity snapped a scoring drought early in the period to make it 10-7, Smith hit his team’s first three pointer of the game from the corner, tying the game up at 10-10 with 3:31 left in the first half. By halftime, the game was tied 12-12, and while the shots just weren’t falling like the Danes wanted, they were happy enough with their defensive performance to be optimistic.
“A lot of big playoff tournament-type games are like that,” Smith said. “Teams are timid, defense is really good because everyone is hyped up. So knew we'd probably open up the scoring in the second half and just had to play our game.”
The third quarter was more active from the start, with Blessed Trinity’s Jack Stephans immediately hitting a corner three to start the second half, and with two more shots from deep later in the third, he became a dangerous shooter that Denmark had to key in on. Meanwhile, the Danes did what they had to do to respond, with Smith, Ze’Vian Capers, Michael Dougherty and Tolbert starting to hit their shots. Both teams exchanged leads in the third, and Denmark went into the fourth with a 30-28 advantage.
Smith took over in the fourth quarter, scoring on a fast break before adding two more shots to pace a 6-0 run to make it 36-31 with 5:30 left. Unlike the first half, Denmark made the free throws they needed to make in the fourth. The Danes did enough to stay just in front of the Titans, and after thwarting a last-second attempt at a game-tying three, Denmark celebrated its long-awaited victory.
“That was definitely a big win, but we know we've got one more on Saturday,” Smith said. “That's kind of been our goal from the beginning. We can enjoy the moment now, but we know we have to be ready for Saturday.”
Smith led the Danes with 18 points and five assists. Dougherty and Tolbert added 11 and eight points, respectively. Denmark will play for the region title on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. back at Chestatee.