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How a group of underclassmen led Westside to state title

Published: Mar. 11, 2022 at 12:01 AM EST
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MACON, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The Westside boys basketball team hoisted the state championship trophy for the first time in 27 years Thursday after beating region-rival Butler 64-55 in the GHSA 2A state championship.

This Westside team seemed like a year away from reaching the top of the mountain. Most of the key contributors on this team — Khalon Hudson, Jalexs Ewing, Aumauri Tillman — are juniors. But they proved, “age don’t matter,” as Hudson said after the game.

Butler came out hot in the early going, leading by 11 after the first quarter. Westside looked out of sync, like a bunch of guys who had never played on the biggest stage before. Their body language was poor. They would argue after every mistake.

“We’re young, so we’re going to do that,” said Tillman. Tillman came over from Grovetown last season after spending his freshman year with the Warriors. He quickly turned into one of the leaders for this team, both with his play and with his voice.

“When we argue, it’s different because we’ve been playing together forever,” he said. “When we argue it’s like a heated conversation. We’re not going to keep going back and forth. Somebody yells at you, you’re like, ‘Alright cool. We got you.’ That’s just how we talk.”

Westside head coach Jerry Hunter saw his team start to get on each other as the Butler lead grew to 13. He never flinched. Hunter has been here before, winning a state title with Laney 10 years ago. He lets his guys play it out.

“As much as I wanted to call a timeout in the first quarter, I had to let them experience it,” he said after the game.

With the Patriots trailing 22-11 after one, Hunter rallied his guys together.

“They came off the court screaming at each other, hollering at each other,” Hunter said. “I had to break them down to get them to understand let’s get back to doing what we do and be who we are.”

Who they are is a long, athletic team who can give you fits on defense. They can block shots, get in the passing lanes, and rebound with just about anyone. Giving up 22 points in a quarter is something this team doesn’t do often.

The second quarter was better for Westside on both ends of the floor. Butler’s lead got up to 13, but then the Patriots started crawling back. They held Butler to just 37.5% from the floor in the second quarter, and the Patriots connected on 13 of 14 free throws. By halftime, Butler’s lead had been cut to just six.

In the third quarter, Westside started putting the pieces together. The inexperience they showed in the first half was gone. They locked down on defense. They took care of the ball. They stopped arguing after mistakes.

With five and a half minutes to go in the third, Tillman connected on a wing three pointer to give the Patriots their first lead of the game 39-38. Tillman had been struggling with his shot, but didn’t let it shake his confidence.

“I just had to stop and realize everything I was taught growing up from coach Hunter, my dad, all my coaches. Like my mom told me to keep my cool,” he said. “I love Kobe Bryant, and I know he never gives up, never stops shooting.”

Mamba Mentality paid off for Tillman less than four minutes later. Butler had retaken the lead before the junior knocked down another triple to take it right back.

“I just kept playing whether it was going in or not,” he said.

The play of the game came with just over six minutes to go in the fourth. Westside forced a turnover on a Butler fast break. Coming the other way, the Patriots had a 3-on-1 with Jalexs Ewing bringing the ball down. Instead of passing it off, Ewing did what we’ve seen him do so many times this year.

He threw down a nasty dunk that got everyone fired up.

“He kept laying the ball up,” said Hunter, talking about Ewing’s play in the first half. “I’m like, ‘Hey man, finish above the rim.’ So then naturally when he did finish above the rim, that was a highlight of my career.”

The dunk got the Patriot faithful on their feet, and sparked Westside’s run to put the game away. The Patriots went on to win their first title since 1995, before any of the current players were even born.

“We’ve been through so much, I mean so much. We had to prevail to be on top,” said Hudson. The junior had 10 points and 11 rebounds in the championship, and has been a dominant force on both ends of the floor this season. “These [are] my brothers. I love them so much. It’s deeper than just basketball.”

It is deeper than just basketball.

These two coaches know each other well. Both Hunter and Butler head coach Cervantes Boddy played basketball at Paine College. They’ve both been in the CSRA coaching scene for years. Even though they were facing one another in Macon, they were striving towards a common goal: making the city of Augusta proud.

“Somebody had to lose and somebody had to win,” Boddy said after the game. “But I’m just thinking about the bigger picture and the spotlight that was shown on the city of Augusta.”

“Just because you’re competing doesn’t mean you have to be enemies,” he continued. “[Hunter is] my brother, and those guys are like my guys.”

“Neither team lost. It’s just one team won a basketball game,” Hunter said. “These guys are champions. It feels good to represent the city, but it’s more so important to show Macon that we have great representation when it comes to basketball.”

That’s not just talk. It’s a level of respect that is woven into the fabric of these two programs. From Hunter and Boddy to the players, these two programs have an admiration for one another.

“They’re my brothers over there. 706 made,” said Ewing, gesturing towards the Butler locker room after the game. “Real special to win against them.”

This moment was also particularly special for Tillman. A guy who rarely shows anything but a straight face during the game, Tillman was overcome with emotion after the final buzzer. This was the reason he left Grovetown and came to Westside. Validation in the form of a state title.

“People doubted me, doubted my decision, didn’t know if it was the right decision to leave a 6A school,” he said.

Tillman said he still loves Grovetown, and he’ll be on the front lines cheering for them as they go for a 6A title against Buford.

But he’s home at Westside.

“I love this team,” he said. “Best group of guys I’ve ever played with.”

As they soak in this state championship, the future is looking bright for the Patriots. Hudson, Ewing, and Tillman all have another year. The other two starters in Thursday’s championship--Demarco Middleton and Xavier Goss--are only sophomores. Only two seniors played more than 10 minutes in the championship.

The best may be yet to come for Westside.

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