Georgia Highlands still young program but winning is old hat
AS SEEN IN THE HUTCHINSON NEWS:
Four years ago, Georgia Highlands' basketball program was in its infancy.
Coach Phil Gaffney was building a program from scratch, but he couldn't have imagined how tough that inaugural season was going to be.
"That first year, we had people who were not good kids," Gaffney said. "We drug test, and we got rid of eight guys. I was recruiting in the cafeteria."
As for the number of wins that season?
"It rhymes with nero," Gaffney said with a laugh.
Who could have predicted that, after that winless season, Georgia Highlands would turn into one of the NJCAA's marquee programs so quickly?
The Chargers came to Hutchinson on a 31-game win streak, and they made it 32 after beating Northeastern Oklahoma A&M 83-69 in Wednesday's second round.
But this isn't even Georgia Highlands' first time in Hutchinson. Last year, the Chargers reached the semifinals and finished fourth.
"It's crazy, because our second year, we lost on a free-throw box out, or we would have been here three years in a row," Gaffney said.
Last year, Georgia Highlands was something of a mystery. Seeded 19th, the Chargers took out No. 14 Butler, No. 3 Southern Idaho and the home team, sixth-seeded Hutchinson.
Returning from that team are Doniel Dean, who had 19 points Wednesday, and Paris Ballinger, who had five assists, four rebounds, three points and three steals.
Also, Immanuel Griggs played for Columbia State, which reached the second round last season, before transferring to Georgia Highlands.
After tasting success last season, the returning Chargers were eager to prove they were no longer a novelty.
"Last year was exciting, because we weren't supposed to win," Dean said. "This year, we're supposed to be here, we're supposed to be in the championship game."
After opening the season with a 98-72 loss to Northwest Florida State, the Chargers have been on a roll. They haven't lost since and won 25 times by double digits.
"We've been able to take the new players under our wings," Bollinger said. "As soon as everyone got there, everyone had the same vision."
That's to win a national championship. Not bad for a program that didn't exist five years ago.
"We paste all over the locker room, 'Better person, better student, better athlete,'" Gaffney said. "We have great assistant coaches, great recruiters and great players up and down. These guys (Bollinger and Dean) have led us, and I'm so blessed to be around great people."
THE QUICK HIT
THE TURNING POINT: NEO seemed to have found an offensive rhythm midway through the first half, closing its deficit to 22-20. But Georgia Highlands answered with a 10-0 run, and the Chargers' lead was never smaller than six points the rest of the game.
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Georgia Highlands' Doniel Dean was magnificent. He scored 19 points on 9 of 16 shooting, he dished out five assists to just two turnovers, and he added four rebounds and two steals. He looked very much like a player who has been in this tournament before, which he has.
HE SAID IT: "Their pressure caused us problems. Our guards are the strength of our team, and we were on our heels all night offensively. We haven't turned it over all year. If they run a half-court defense, we would have been much more comfortable." - NEO coach Dustin Grover.