T.J. Custer took over one end of the floor, Andrew Fishler locked down the other. In between, their clutch performances squeezed the life out of South Forsyth.
Custer scored 12 of his game-high 22 points in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, and Fishler blocked three shots during the same stretch, leading Forsyth Central’s boys to a 61-51 victory against the War Eagles on senior night Tuesday at the D.B. Carroll Complex. Fishler finished just short of a triple-double with 14 points, nine rebounds and eight blocks.
The victory guarantees that the Bulldogs (14-10 overall, 7-7 Region 7-AAAA) will finish a season with a winning record for the first time in the 21st century and keeps them in the hunt for a first-round bye in the region tournament.
“We’ve just been kind of the team that ... keeps grinding and grinding and grinding and finds a way,” Central coach Steve Barnes said.
“It took ... every block, every rebound, every stop. We just did what we needed to do down the stretch ... and just grinded out another win.”
Central used a 14-1 run to establish an 11-point lead late in the first quarter and remained ahead 20-9 in the second period. South (7-16, 2-11) fought back by closing the half on an 11-2 run, cutting the gap to 22-20 going into the break.
The War Eagles took the lead on three separate occasions in the third quarter — each time via a Mark McCorkle 3-pointer — but failed to ever stretch their advantage beyond two points. McCorkle’s third-quarter burst was the highlight of an otherwise quiet night for the senior guard, who was held to 12 points.
South took its final lead 37-35 at the start of the fourth quarter when Logan Cole dropped in a basket off an inbound pass from Geronimo Cruz.
Fishler responded with two consecutive baskets in the paint to put Central back on top before a field goal by Nick Graf (team-high 13 points) tied the game 39-39 midway through the period.
“They’re hard to guard,” Barnes said of South. “I knew it would be a battle.”
Custer knocked down a 3-pointer on Central’s next trip down the floor, and Fishler came up with a block on the other end following two missed shots by Graf. The ball found its way back into the hands of Custer, who knocked down another shot from beyond the arc to extend the lead to 45-39.
Fishler delivered another block on South’s next possession — this time on a Douglas Cotter shot — and Central capitalized when Ryder Bowline drove the lane and passed to Jeremiah Jones underneath the basket for two easy points.
“We had some defensive lapses in the fourth quarter that led to our demise,” South coach Kevin Dankosky said. “When you give up easy baskets, that’s never a good thing.
“We put ourselves in a good position to win that game, then the fourth quarter just a little bit got away from us. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to play them again maybe in the region tournament.”
Even when the War Eagles made stops, they often struggled to secure rebounds.
A 3-pointer by Cotter cut the deficit to 50-44 with 1:48 remaining, but the Bulldogs grabbed three offensive rebounds on their next possession before Custer knocked down a jumper from the free-throw line.
With under a minute to play, Cruz tried to drive in for layup that would have cut the gap to five points. Instead, Fishler was there to block a shot one last time.
Jones then made it a four-point swing for Central by hitting two free throws that boosted the lead to 55-46 with 50.5 seconds to play.
Custer added four free throws in the closing seconds, and Barnes’ son, senior Colby Barnes (7 points), tacked on two more to seal the win.
“I’m just proud of the Central family,” said Steve Barnes, reflecting on the season as much as the game.
“Our students have just been awesome. Senior night, you know, to get a win here, my son being part of that makes it even more special.
“It assures us of a winning record. ... That’s just awesome. Hopefully the best is yet to come.”
The victory also completed the Bulldogs’ regular season sweep of the War Eagles. Central won the only other meeting between the two squads 74-59 on Jan. 10 at the Eagles’ Nest.
Central closes out the regular season at 8:30 p.m. on Friday at Lambert, while South plays host to Johns Creek on Friday (7:30 p.m.) and Woodland on Saturday (5:30 p.m.).
The Bulldogs, currently in sixth place in the region standings, will need some help in order to secure a first- round bye in the region tournament. They must secure a victory against Lambert on Friday and hope that either Northwest Whitfield or Sequoyah closes the season with back-to-back losses.
South, ninth in the region standings, will begin the region tournament Feb. 11 when teams seeded 6-11 are paired against one another.