With a roster featuring 10 of 11 players who were getting set to play their first-ever college basketball game, Georgia Northwestern head coach David Stephenson knew his young, freshmen-heavy team would need to grow up in a hurry once the season began.
The Bobcats took the first step toward doing just that on Wednesday.
Down three points at home to the junior varsity squad from Hiwassee College with just 37.5 seconds to play, the Bobcats found a way. Scoring the game's final seven points, they raised the curtain on the 2017-2018 season in style, thrilling the home crowd at the Rossville Athletic Center with a 71-67 victory.
Freshman Bryce Waters scored the final five points, including a fall-away jump hook that he converted into a three-point play that put Georgia Northwestern back into the lead for good with 19.4 seconds remaining. After the Tigers missed a three at the other end, the 6-foot-6 Waters grabbed the rebound and drove coast-to-coast for a lay-up with 5.9 seconds left to seal the win.
The Bobcats (1-0), who trailed by as many as seven in the second half, rallied to take a 63-59 lead with 5:15 to go. But save for a Justin Smith free throw with 2:20 to play, Georgia Northwestern was held scoreless for nearly five full minutes down the stretch.
A three-pointer by Justice Alameda with 4:51 left cut the Bobcats' lead to one and Alameda scored on a lay-up in transition to give Hiwassee (0-1) a 64-63 lead with 2:51 to go. Smith knotted the game after making 1-of-2 attempts, but a free throw by Rasheed Michel with 2:04 to play and two free throws by Jermaine Thompson with 37.5 seconds left gave the Tigers a 67-64 advantage.
Georgia Northwestern would miss twice on its ensuing possession before a put-back by Davian Wheeler with 22.9 seconds remaining pulled the Bobcats within one. The home team would then catch a break when Hiwassee stepped on the end line while attempting inbound the ball, giving the Bobcats possession under the Hiwassee basket.
After an initial pass, Waters came cutting down the lane and took the ball in the paint, getting bumped in the process. However, the former Sonoraville (Ga.) High School standout was able to keep his body in control long enough to muscle in the shot.
"I knew we were in the double bonus," Waters explained. "I also knew we were down one and I knew I need to make (the shot). I got up a little hook shot and it went in."
Waters led the way for the Bobcats in his first collegiate game, scoring 11 of his team-high 17 points in the second half, including a 7-for-9 performance at the foul line. He also ended a solid night with six rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots.
"I was a little nervous at first tonight, but as it went on (the game) kind of came to me a little more," Waters said. "We could have shot it a little better tonight, but we'll keep learning from each other and learning how we play."
The two teams stayed within one possession of each other for much of the first half, which saw five ties and nine lead changes. Neither team led by more than five points in the first 20 minutes as the Tigers took a 35-31 lead into the locker room.
But the Bobcats would turn up the pressure defensively with a press in the second half and it paid dividends. After Hiwassee shot 41.2 percent from the field in the first half, they shot just 27 percent (10-of-37) over the final 20 minutes, while Georgia Northwestern (46.2 percent from the field in the opening half) shot an even 50 percent (12-of-24) in the second half.
"I think the potato is always the key for us," Stephenson said. "The big potato press, it seemed to change the game."
None of Georgia Northwestern's points in the second half came from behind the arc. The Bobcats attempted just four treys all evening long, connecting on two of them.
Davian Wheeler finished with 11 points and Kolbi Suttles added 10, mostly on drives to the bucket. Tyler Phillips, who sunk the first shot attempt for the Bobcats this season on a three-pointer just eight seconds into the game, scored nine points and had eight rebounds, while 6-foot-7 Micah Wheeler had eight points and eight boards. The sophomore is the Bobcats' lone returning player from last season.
Aloy Ufere had 18 points for the Tigers, followed by Michel with 14 and Alameda with 11.
"I told them at halftime I was hoarse from yelling and I yelling because I knew we were better than what we were showing," Stephenson explained. "The mistakes we were making were freshmen mistakes, but hopefully we've learned from this. Like I said before, I think we'll be a better team in December than we are in November and this is just a starting block. But it's a good way to start. It's been a few years since we won our opener at home."
Both the Bobcats and the Lady Bobcats will head to Jacksonville, Fla. this weekend for an early-season tournament at Trinity Baptist College.
The Bobcats will play the host school at 7:30 p.m. on Friday before facing Georgia Gwinnett College at 12 noon on Saturday. The Lady Bobcats open with Blue Lights College from North Carolina at 3:30 on Friday before facing Trinity Baptist at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
For more information on Georgia Northwestern Bobcat Athletics, visit our website at www.bobcatscountry.com.