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Wildcats advance to Sweet 16, will host second round Thursday
Richmond Hill beat Lee County 44-43 in the first round of the state tournament Saturday. - photo by Ted O'Neil

Sam on a mission.

Richmond Hill senior Sam James had 25 points, including 17 in the second half, to lead the Wildcats to a 44-43 win over Lee County in the first round of the AAAAAA state tournament.

“When I found out we were playing Lee again, that was extra motivation,” he said. “That got us fired up.”

In fact, James tweeted early in the week “I’m not losing to Lee again.”

Wildcat fans will remember last November when Lee County beat Richmond Hill in the first round of the state football playoffs en route to the Trojans winning the AAAAAA championship.

Richmond Hill will host Lakeside Evans in the second round at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Lakeside Evans, the No. 4 seed from its region, upset top-seeded Stephenson in their first-round game Saturday night.

Saturday’s home win was another close game for the Wildcats, who have now seen 15 games this year decided by four points or less.

“I told the guys at halftime that we’ve been in this situation before,” Richmond Hill Coach Bill Henderson said. “A lot.”

Lee County took a 9-6 after one quarter and led 20-17 at the half. The Trojans led 34-30 after the third quarter, but had led by as many as eight before James hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to end the quarter.

“Being down by eight and not shooting free throws very well, it would have been easy for players to just say it’s not their night,” Henderson said. “But we didn’t give up.”

Speaking of free throws, Richmond Hill was six of 20 on the night.

“We have to clean that up as the tournament goes on,” Henderson said.

With only one foul called on each team in the first half, Lee County was taking advantage of its size advantage, blocking several Richmond Hill shots. The momentum swung in the fourth quarter when James dunked an alley oop from Sheldon Lewis to tie the game at 34-34.

“Lee County is very physical, but we told the guys at halftime they needed to be more aggressive and attack the basket,” Henderson said.

Although they missed, attempted dunks in the third quarter by Kevin McLeod and James appeared to give Richmond Hill the mindset it needed.

“I could see us change mentality right away,” Henderson said.

After several close calls at the end of the game, Richmond Hill was inbounding the ball by its own bench with four seconds left. Brendan Beckwith found James open in the back court, but the Lee County players watched him dribble the ball as time expired.

“I think everyone was a little surprised by that,” Henderson said. “Everyone thought they were going to foul immediately.”

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