The 7-foot center’s absence didn’t make much of a difference as the Eagles jumped out to an early lead and capitalized on a second half that was nearly all about free throws to beat Whitefield Academy 62-52 in the region 6A semifinals at the Darlington School.
Kalina, who put up a double-double for North Cobb Christian (20-6) in Friday’s quarterfinal-round win over Darlington, left the floor with two fouls at the 3:25 mark of the first quarter. That’s when senior Stephon Jelks stepped into the primary role and led the Eagles to a 25-9 first-half lead.
Jelks scored 10 of his 15 points in the first two quarters — including two emphatic slam dunks — while Kendall Crute helped with 15 of his own, including two 3-pointers.
“Stephon just basically said, ‘Boys, get on my back. I’m going with you,’” North Cobb Christian coach Greg Matta said. “Stephon took over the game. He made the right break to the basket multiple times. Had some nice dunks.”
Whitefield’s players were frustrated with physical play and little foul calls to show in the first half. Coach Tyrone Johnson took notice, but didn’t make excuses.
“I do think we were frustrated with the officials, but I don’t think the officials affected the game at all,” Johnson said. “There’s no reason to have negative body language and feel like someone should give you something.”
Whitefield senior Eric Lockett took most of the beating, but he continued to push to finish with 21 points to lead all scorers.
“Eric is a competitor and he wants to win,” Johnson said. “We still have to have some conversations about how you handle things when things aren’t necessarily going your way, though.”
North Cobb Christian led 30-15 at halftime, but Whitefield (20-6) strung together a swing that began before halftime and carried into the third quarter.
Kalina committed his third foul and left the game for good with 6:11 to go in the third period. Whitefield cut the deficit to single digits shortly after at 32-23 when Courtney Alexander Jr. threw down a tomahawk slam.
That, however, was as close as Whitefield could scrap back. In the second half, there were 18 field goals and 22 trips to the charity stripe. The Eagles held off the Wolfpack, going a modest 21-of-38 from the line.
“We, as a team, are a 75-percent free-throw shooting team. We were not stepping up with confidence and knocking it down,” Matta said. “I was very disappointed with the way we were controlling that second half because, if you get a 12- to 15-point lead, they’ll try to foul you.”
With the victory, North Cobb Christian moved on to Monday’s region championship game Saint Francis, which won both matchups with the Eagles in the regular season, by a combined six points.
“We’re as good of a team as they are,” Matta said “This is just a team that has our number right now, and we’ve got to be ready to play.”
For Johnson’s Wolfpack, the loss should only make his team hungrier for the state playoffs. Now, they’re left to wait for the final power ratings to be determined before the Class A private school state playoffs.
“We can learn from this and be an unbelievable team in the state playoffs. A team that nobody wants to play,” Johnson said. “Or, we can not learn from this and get kicked out real fast.
“This is why I love the playoffs.”