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Blue Eagles' season ends in first round

By By SCOTT COOPER – Sports Writer
The W.S. Neal Blue Eagles put forth a gallant effort in their Feb. 7 Class 3A Area-1 opening-round game against the Clarke County Bulldogs at T.R. Miller High School, but the Bulldogs proved to be the better team over four quarters of play.
After the two teams ended the first period tied, Clarke County held the lead over much of the next two quarters. The Blue Eagles, however, mounted a final-quarter comeback that cut the deficit to a single point before the Bulldogs regrouped and began pulling away toward a 70-56 win.
The loss ended the Blue Eagles' season with a 6-21 overall record while the win placed the Bulldogs (13-17) in the tournament championship game against T.R. Miller on Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m.
The contest began with both teams playing an aggressive style of defense. After a scoreless first couple of minutes, Clarke County broke the ice with a basket and held a 6-2 lead before J.J. Pitts' putback pulled the Blue Eagles within two, 6-4. Following a Bulldogs' jump shot that made the score 8-4, Craig Tagudar's free throw coupled with a 3-pointer from Nick Benjamin allowed Neal to tie the game, 8-8. A Clarke County bucket off a steal gave the Bulldogs a 10-8 advantage with only seconds remaining in the quarter, but then Keith Woods' two points inside the paint tied things up, 10-10, entering the second period.
After a relatively low-scoring first quarter, the production on the offensive end heated up in the second stanza. The Bulldogs went on a 7-4 run in building a 17-14 lead midway through the period. Then, Keith Woods scored two points from underneath while Pitts and Benjamin contributed 3-pointers that pulled the Blue Eagles within a basket, 24-22, with 2:18 to go in the half. But, a late 8-2 Clarke County rally gave the Bulldogs the upper hand, 32-24, as the teams headed to the locker room at halftime.
Neal rallied in the third quarter to cut into the lead, but then the Bulldogs once again came right back with an answer.
Getting strong offensive performances from Woods, Pitts, Tagudar and Marcus Folmar, the Blue Eagles reduced the deficit to 39-35 with 4:50 left in the period before a 10-7 Clarke County run placed Neal behind by seven, 49-42, heading to the fourth quarter.
Folmar, Benjamin and Pitts each nailed 3-pointers that paced the Blue Eagles in a 10-4 run early in the final period. Trailing at that point, 53-52, Neal allowed the opportunity for a victory slip by. The Bulldogs scored the next five points to reestablish a comfortable cushion at 58-52, and then proceeded to go on a 12-4 game-ending run that gained them a 14-point win and a spot in the tournament's championship game.
Offensive leaders for the Blue Eagles were Keith Woods, 15 points; J.J. Pitts, 15 points and Nick Benjamin, 12 points.