GAINESVILLE — Tyler Whitlock thought about how he felt in the moment, and for a few seconds, all he could do was look around, shake his head and laugh.
The Denmark boys basketball head coach believed this was possible. He might have been the first to do so, and he told the Danes they could do it as early as summer workouts. He saw the teams' ingredients, like a group of spring-loaded rebounders and a point guard in Sutton Smith that capably ran the offense but also almost never failed to get his buckets, and saw the goal: A region championship.
But when it actually happened, the improbability of it, the amazement it inspired, was undeniable. Nevertheless: Denmark, a first-year program with no seniors and a total of two players with previous varsity basketball experience, beat Marist 57-45 at Chestatee High School on Saturday to win the Region 7-4A championship and claim a No. 1 state playoff seed.
"I knew that we could get there: It was a matter of how long would it take us to be able to get there and compete with those teams." Whitlock said. "We had that conversation the first day of practice: 'We know what we will be able to accomplish one day, but we can extend that time or we can shorten that time.'
And they decided that they were going to shorten that time and make it happen this year."
The Danes' run through the region tournament was not from nothing. They had gone 9-3 in regular season play, and of their two losses to Blessed Trinity and one to Marist, none of them had come by double digits. In Thursday's semifinals, Denmark finally solved the former opponent, winning 46-43.
Beating Marist seemed a reasonable goal, given that the Danes were coming off a 54-52 road win over the War Eagles. Denmark never looked truly outclassed on Saturday, leading 8-6 after the first quarter, 23-15 at halftime, and 37-33 after the third.
"I think we're too stupid to not be scared of the moment." Whitlock said. "I think we just think that we're built for this."
That's not to say nervy moments didn't happen, though. Marist took two leads in the third quarter, but Denmark answered each of them with a basket to retake the advantage within 25 seconds.
And in the fourth quarter, perhaps the most pivotal play of the game swung the Danes' way. With Denmark up 42-41 with just under five-and-a-half minutes to play, the Danes got a steal, but the War Eagles took it right back. Marist's athletic wing Kyle Hamilton, a Notre Dame football recruit, rose and cocked the ball back for a tomahawk slam, but it instead hit the back rim and flew out of bounds the other direction.
Denmark scored the games' next seven points, and Marist soon started fouling intentionally. The Danes hit 11 of their 12 free throws in the game's final two minutes, topping of a 19-for-22 night at the line for the team.
"A lot of them, Karson Kinnevy, Adrian (Gutierrez), they've been forced to grow up super fast, but they've done a great job," Smith said.
The Danes had a full student section on hand at Chestatee, and in the final minutes, the reality of the team's accomplishment sunk in. "No seniors" was their first chant, shortly after Michael Dougherty made two free throws to put the Danes' lead in double digits. "Region champs" was the next.
In high school athletics, it's unlikely that those two can coexist. But Forsyth County's newest traditional high school just made itself an example.
Smith led the Danes with 17 points, while Adonnis Easton-Tolbert had 16 and Karson Kinnevy had 11. Denmark will host Ridgeland next week in the first round of the state tournament.