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Basketball: Denmark boys outlast Stephens County in overtime to reach state quarterfinals
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Denmark's players and students dogpile on the court to celebrate the Danes' state playoff win over Stephens County on Feb. 21, 2019 at Denmark High School. - photo by Ben Hendren

Playing basketball wasn’t even on Ze’Vian Capers’ mind heading into his first season at Denmark.

After all, as a Division I football prospect, he really didn’t have the need to pick up another sport. But basketball head coach Tyler Whitlock knew having an athlete like Capers on his team could make a huge difference.

“He said that my capabilities could help us out a lot,” Capers said. “Me and my family put our faith in him.”

And on Thursday night, and Capers was in a situation that was unthinkable months ago. The Danes, a region champion in their first season, were playing in the second round of the state playoffs, in an overtime game against Stephens County that had been close throughout. After the Indians missed two free throws that would have given them the lead with 28 seconds left, Capers was fouled with the Danes clinging to a one-point edge. It was up to the football player to help seal the deal for the basketball team.

“I looked at him and told him, 'You were built for this moment,’” Whitlock said. “He knows that -- he had a big smile on his face. There's a reason why he's a Division I prospect for football. There's also a big mental part of it.”

Capers missed his first shot, but made the second to give the Danes a 60-58 advantage before banking two straight on his next trip to the line. His six points in overtime and 16 points for the game helped give Denmark a 63-58 win over Stephens. The Danes will host Woodward Academy for the Class 4A quarterfinals next week.

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Denmark's Sutton Smith takes the ball up the court during the Danes' game against Stephens County on Feb. 21, 2019 at Denmark High School. - photo by Ben Hendren
With the game tied with less than a minute left in regulation, Denmark escaped what could have been the finishing blow for the Indians. After getting fouled with 13.2 seconds left, Stephens attempted two field goals to no avail, sending the game into overtime, where the Danes finally pulled ahead for the momentous win.

“I'm so grateful for this group of kids, just seeing their hard work pay off,” Whitlock said. “We battled a lot of adversity in that game and kept (our) head level. You're in that situation and you'd think they'd question themselves, but they didn’t. They believe in one another and trusted one another to make the right plays.”

The adversity began from the opening tip. Early on, the shots just weren’t falling for Denmark, with a good chunk of the balls going in and out of the basket. Sutton Smith, so often Denmark’s leading scorer, went through the first quarter with no points.

“We came in kind of nervous,” Capers said. “We didn't know what to expect with this team. In the first quarter we kind just got all of the jitters out and that's when we started scoring.”

Smith settled in just in time. After trailing 11-9 after one, Denmark trailed by seven midway through the second, and Smith capped off a 13-3 run with a buzzer-beating shot to tie the game at 24-24 at halftime. At the end of the third, Smith tied the game at the buzzer again, at 41-41. He ended his night with 16 points, tied with Capers for the team lead. Adonnis Easton-Tolbert had 15.

“I was a little concerned when (Smith) didn't see his shot fall early, but he played through,” Whitlock said. “He made defensive plays that were huge in the first half. He made shots late to keep us in striking distance. He's not afraid of the moment, and that's so rare, especially as a sophomore.”

With every step the Danes take, the magnitude of their accomplishments only grows. Not many believed that they would be the last Forsyth County boys team standing, but that’s what they are, and they don’t want their magic season to end just yet.

“I don't know if any of us truly believed that we could (do this), but we came and worked every day towards that goal,” Whitlock said. "I think it's great to see it pay off and see us achieve this.”