FORT VALLEY — It took everything they had, but with a slim halftime lead, Denmark’s boys basketball team’s efforts appeared to be worth it.
The Danes didn’t need much motivation against Woodward Academy in their program’s first-ever Final Four appearance on Friday. This was the same team that eliminated Denmark in its first playoff appearance last year, and just like that first meeting, the Danes had set themselves up well for the second half.
All they had to to was continue keeping pace with the War Eagles’ crop of elite talent, including Walker Kessler, a 7-foot McDonald’s All-American center committed to North Carolina.
But ultimately, after holding Kessler and his supporting cast to just over 20 points in the first half, Denmark just couldn’t keep up. The last few minutes of the game were filled with big plays and dunks from the War Eagles, and after it was all over, the Danes came up short with a 62-43 loss to end their season.
“I think we just ran out of gas,” Denmark coach Tyler Whitlock said. “We missed a couple of very easy passes that should be catchable, that should be layups. Those are game-changers. We tried to make difficult passes, which are not very characteristic of us, instead of solid, sound plays. When you get tired, you go to what feels easy, and I think that's what happened.
“They played so hard — I don’t have a question in my mind that they left it all on the court. We just weren't in good enough shape.”
Before fatigue caught up to the Danes, though, they looked very much in line for a potential upset. While Denmark only connected on two field goals in the first quarter courtesy of sophomores Kourtland Tolbert and Robert Cowherd, the Danes did a good job containing Kessler on defense, who was unable to make multiple open shots from beyond the arc. At the end of the first, Woodward led by just two, at 10-8.
“We knew that was in his repertoire, but you've got to pick your poison with him,” Whitlock said. “You're 7 foot, you can shoot NBA-range threes, you can put the ball on the floor a little bit ... Would you rather get beat by having him dunk from 2 feet away or would you rather take the chances on (him) jacking 25-foot threes? We had to take a gamble and I think it paid off.”
In the second quarter, the Danes began taking advantage of the position they were in. Senior Adonnis Tolbert began the frame with a dunk, and with threes from Michael Dougherty, Joseph Scott, Cowherd and Sutton Smith, Denmark was battling back and forth with the War Eagles, and escaped the first half with a 25-23 lead.
“We were very committed to our game plan,” Whitlock said. “We had it outlined how we wanted to guard each player. We wanted to be very physical in the half-court defense and we wanted to get out and run them in transition because we felt like that was to our strength. We were able to do that which allowed us to get some confidence going.”
While that confidence was still present to start the second half, the War Eagles were eventually able to take the lead for good after a pair of momentum-shifting plays. With Denmark trailing by two midway through the third, Kessler shook the backboard with a behind-the-back dunk, and less than a minute later, teammate Emory Lanier connected on a shot while falling on his back to send the Woodward crowd into a roar.
Denmark only scored seven points in the third, and after a 10-0 War Eagles run ended the quarter, the Danes trailed 43-32 entering the fourth. As the final period went on, Denmark had to go out of its comfort zone, pressuring more to less-than-ideal results. As the Danes were worn down further, it became harder to keep the War Eagles out of the paint.
“They're very well conditioned to take advantage of that type of pressure, which allowed the game to get away a little bit,” Whitlock said. “I don't think the score really dictates how close of a game it was.”
With a good amount of role players coming back next year, the Danes should be in good shape in the immediate future. But after two straight deep playoff runs to start Denmark’s existence, Whitlock is more than happy with all that his team’s done so far.
“I'm just super proud of them and I'm just super grateful for the group of kids that we have,” Whitlock said. “Several of them weren't even sure if they were going to come to Denmark, and for them to make the choice and commit to helping build this program, they're just reaping the reward of the hard work that they put in. They deserve all that they have accomplished.”