If you’ve read my last two columns you will know that I am celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1974 Upson High School Yellow Jacket boys’ basketball team. I have covered the regular season and the Region 5B Tournament and now it is time to take a look at the State Class B Tournament.
We played Hogansville in the region finals on March 1 and then had a 12-day break before we played our first game in the state tournament. The tournament was held in the Macon Coliseum and it was a big thrill to get a chance to play in this very large arena. Our first game was on March 13 and our opponent was Georgia Military High School from Milledgeville.
After getting some information on GMC I felt pretty good about our chances in this game. We seemed to have no tournament jitters and played well early, building a 10-point halftime lead. We continued to build on our lead in the second half and wound up with a solid 61-41 victory. Dudley Mallory led the way for us with 24 points and Isaac King pulled down 11 rebounds.
The next night we played Patterson High School in the quarter-finals. I didn’t know where Patterson was then and I still don’t know where Patterson is! I do remember that they had long white and green striped socks that looked rather silly. We maintained a 8 to 10-point lead throughout the game and found up winning 45-33. Gary Gulledge scored 16 and Mallory had 14. King and Roy Caldwell had 13 rebounds each.
Wow, we were suddenly in the state semi-finals! Upson High was a school that almost no one had ever heard of. As a matter of fact, six months earlier it did not exist. Now we were causing everyone to search to see who we were and where we had come from.
Our semi-final opponent was Plains High School from Plains, Georgia, the home of future President Jimmy Carter. Plains was good and had a couple of players named Slappey who were outstanding. Charles Slappey was a 6’6” hoss who could shoot and rebound. Eddie Dean Slappey was a quick point guard who ran the show. This was a tough opponent.
The game was played on a Friday and at school that day I received news that Eddie Dean Slappey may not play. The rumor was that he had been injured in a post-game celebration the night before. I wasn’t sure if this was true so we prepared as best we could for Slappey to play.
As it turned out the rumor was true and Slappey did not play. This was very good news for us! We trailed for most of the game, but managed to cut the margin to one point at the end of the third quarter. Plains then managed to build a seven-point lead with about three minutes left in the game. For some reason they then decided to go into a stall to protect their lead. This backfired on them as they missed five free throws and we forced a few turnovers to tie the game at 61-61 when the final horn sounded.
With only a few seconds left in the three-minute overtime the score was 63-63 and we had the ball. I called a timeout to discuss our strategy. We didn’t design a particular play but just wanted to run our normal offense and try to get the ball in the hands of one of our best shooters, Gulledge or Mallory, for a good jump shot opportunity. That didn’t happen!
With only six seconds left in the game the ball ended up in the hands of Carey Prater, our 6’5” forward, who took a long corner jumper that hit nothing but the bottom of the net. We then forced Plains into a turnover as they inbounded the ball and we had an unbelievable 65-63 victory and a trip to the state finals.
Gulledge scored 24 points and Caldwell grabbed 17 rebounds in our big win.
So it was four games in four days as we prepared to play for the State Class B title. Guess who our opponent was? Yep, the Hogansville Green Wave! The same bunch who had defeated us for the region championship. It was a Region 5B rematch!
It was great thrill for this 26-year old head coach, in his third full season of coaching, to have his team in the state finals. I remember feeling like it was unreal and I was numb throughout the entire day. I had to really pump myself up to get ready to coach my team that night.
We played well for three quarters and had a 53-48 lead at the end of the third period. We just needed to hold on for eight more minutes and we would be state champs. It wasn’t meant to be! We suddenly went into a scoring slump and could only score four points in the final quarter. Hogansville had a very effective half-court zone press and we had been able to navigate it all night but it really bothered us in the fourth quarter.
We just couldn’t make a shot! Hogansville finished well and beat us 62-57 to win their second consecutive state championship. Mallory had 21 points and Prater had 15 rebounds to lead our effort. We finished the season with a 22-9 record.
I was still in a bit of a fog after the game. It hadn’t yet hit me that we had come so close to a state championship and came up short. Believe me, it has hit me thousands of time since that night as I never had the opportunity to coach in a state championship game again. I had my chance and let it slip away!
Gulledge and Mallory were named All-State to cap off our season. Yep, the same Mallory whom I hadn’t started until after Christmas. I don’t take much pride in failing to notice his ability for so long, but I am glad I finally woke up.
The 1974 Upson Yellow Jackets were a championship group of young men who made me proud to be their coach. We overcame anonymity to be a very good basketball team and put our new school on the basketball map. After 40 years the season is still a wonderful memory and I still fondly remember my players who gave more than even I thought they had. Great job guys! Thanks for the memories!