AUGUSTA — The Hall-Dale High School boys basketball team was the best going into the season. The Bulldogs were the best during the season, the best in the Mountain Valley Conference, and the best going into the C South tournament.

They were also the best team in that tournament. They wasted no time proving it Saturday night.

Top-seeded Hall-Dale jumped out in front of No. 2 Winthrop and never looked back, racing to a 51-37 victory at the Augusta Civic Center.

Afterward, Hall-Dale players climbed the ladders, cut the nets and started the celebration, just as many, noting the Bulldogs’ returning talent, had predicted before the season began.

“It’s very rewarding,” coach Chris Ranslow said. “We found a way through the 1-8 game, we found a way to beat a very talented Richmond team with two wonderful players, and then you find yourself in the 1-2 game in the C South final, and you find a way to get through it. We found our way today.”

They found it early. Hall-Dale (20-1) picked on a turnover-prone Ramblers team, jumping ahead by double digits in the second quarter and never letting Winthrop (17-4) climb back.

Alec Byron led Hall-Dale with 23 points, while Abbott had 21 and six rebounds. The two scored each of Hall-Dale’s 24 second-half points.

Cam Wood led defending champion Winthrop, which lost to Hall-Dale in the MVC championship game, with 14 points and 14 rebounds, while Sam Figueroa had nine points.

“We thought we were ready for this,” coach Todd MacArthur said. “We obviously weren’t. … They’re the better team. We found that out three times.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME: For his performance, Alec Byron was named tournament MVP. He was happy just to be on the court.

Byron said he had a fever all day, and was throwing up before the game. The junior didn’t let it affect him after the opening tip, however, as he went to work attacking the rim, knocking down shots and setting the tone for Hall-Dale’s stifling full-court defense.

“(I said) ‘There’s no way I’m not playing,’ ” he said. “I came out here and knew that this could be the final game of my junior year, and I just worked my butt off.”

It was the third straight game of 20 or more points for Byron, who scored 70 points in the tournament.

“My dad once told me that big players show up in the playoffs,” he said. “I know I’ve been a little inconsistent this year. (I wanted) to make my mark on everybody in this league and show everybody that I can be one of the best players in this tournament.”

TURNOVERS TELL THE TALE: Hall-Dale had withstood scares from No. 8 Traip Academy and No. 5 Richmond en route to the final, each of whom had taken fourth-quarter leads against the Bulldogs.

There was no need for such a rally Saturday. Hall-Dale made sure of it.

The Bulldogs never trailed after the first two minutes, opened up an 18-11 lead after the first quarter and built the lead up to 14 points before settling for a 27-17 halftime advantage.

The Bulldogs were efficient on offense, but they were relentless on defense. With Byron (five steals) leading the way, Hall-Dale’s swarming defenders and active hands in passing lanes forced Winthrop into 14 first-half turnovers, and 24 for the game.

“I thought the first two games, we were just really sluggish in the first half,” Abbott said. “We weren’t playing our game. … Tonight, we really came together and jelled as one. We were playing good defense, working hard, and it paid off.”

The abundance of turnovers took away any chance Winthrop had of first stopping Hall-Dale’s surge, then keeping up with it. The Ramblers turned the ball over eight times in a 5:59 stretch between the first and second quarters during which the Bulldogs went on an 11-0 run to take a 27-11 lead.

“We just didn’t execute our offense,” MacArthur said. “Obviously it was their pressure that took us out of our offense. We never got those opportunities for them. … It has nothing to do with them not showing up, or anything. It was (that) we didn’t execute what we had to do.”

FINAL GASP: The Ramblers didn’t go without a final stand. Down 36-23 with more than three minutes to go in the third, Winthrop whittled the lead to 38-30 on a Nate LeBlanc free throw with 6:37 to play.

It kept alive the hope that the Ramblers, who escaped an eight-point deficit with fewer than three minutes to go in the semifinals against Boothbay, had another Houdini-like escape in them.

“On the bench before halftime, it was ‘We’ve got to cut it to 10.’ In the locker room, I told them ‘We’ve got to chip away,’ ” MacArthur said. ” ‘This is not going to be a one-possession thing. This is not going to be a two-possession thing. This is going to be a 15- to 20-possession thing.’ ”

Winthrop got a rebound, but threw it away on the other end on a pass into the post. Byron then sank a 3-pointer, the Ramblers turned it over again, and a pair of Abbott free throws with 4:10 to go moved the lead back to 13.

“The Achilles heel of our team has been turnovers,” MacArthur said. “That came to the forefront right there. … We didn’t overcome those tonight.”

Drew Bonifant – 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM