Top-ranked South Atlanta boys big on team chemistry

South Atlanta forward Tyler Thornton (15) receives a warm welcome from his team mates at the start of a game in Atlanta on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. (Henry Taylor/AJC)

South Atlanta forward Tyler Thornton (15) receives a warm welcome from his team mates at the start of a home game against B.E.S.T. in Atlanta on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. (Henry Taylor/AJC)

South Atlanta boys basketball coach Michael Reddick is in his 19th season with the Hornets, and he already has encountered a first — a 19-day break in the middle of the season.

“I’ve never had a layoff that long before,” Reddick said.

Part of it was planned. The Hornets, currently Class AA’s No. 1 team, had played 13 games before the Christmas holidays, so he wanted to rest his players. For the first season since he has been coach, the Hornets didn’t participate in a post-Christmas tournament. Then wintry conditions set in across Atlanta and the surrounding areas, wiping out additional games on the calendar scheduled for early January.

When all was told, the Hornets had played a total of zero games between Dec. 23 and Jan. 10. Fortunately for the Hornets (15-1) they easily shook off the rust to open 2017 on a three-game winning streak, most recently a 75-71 win over Shaw on Monday in Columbus.

If there was ever a Hornets squad equipped to handle such a layoff, it’s this one. That’s because its nucleus — Frank Bailey, Tyler Thornton, Jalen Stegall, Devonta Pullins, Deondre Barnes and Acey Brown — has been playing together for as long as they can remember, dating back to elementary school. They’ve won rec league championships and played together in middle school and on AAU teams.

That’s one of the reasons the Hornets are the state’s top-ranked team despite losing eight seniors from last year’s AAA semifinalist team.

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(Henry Taylor/AJC)

“We’re like a family,” said Thornton, a 6-foot-7 senior forward and one of the Hornets’ best players. “We have fun when other teams are out there stressing. Having fun is all we do.”

Added Bailey, a 5-8 senior guard: “We know we can win. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We’re not cocky, but confident.”

With the team’s chemistry already established, it was only a matter of Reddick honing it to perform within his system, which he characterizes as “organized confusion.”

“We make sure they’re fundamentally sound,” Reddick said. “We try to play at a different tempo and get (opponents) to do something they’re not used to doing to lead us to easy baskets. We’re normally one of the highest-scoring teams in the state.”

That high-scoring ability was on display last Thursday when the Hornets beat B.E.S.T. 90-29 in a Region 6 contest. It was the third time they’ve eclipsed the 90-point mark and their fifth game passing 80 points.

“The system works for us because most of us on the court can do everything,” junior guard Jalen Stegall said. “When we get the rebound, we just go. We can all start a fast break, so we just run and try to outrun everyone we play.”

So far, so good. The Hornets are undefeated against in-state teams, with their only loss coming at Sumter, S.C., to Crestwood, 79-68. They haven’t lost since, and that includes at the Peach State Classic at Clayton State, where they went 3-0 with victories against Class AAAA’s No. 4 Fayette County and No. 8 Eagle’s Landing. The classic was one the state’s top holiday tournaments, and Thornton took home MVP honors with averages of 20 points and 10 rebounds.

South Atlanta also has a strong grip on Region 6 with a 6-0 record that includes a 62-40 victory against No. 9 Hapeville Charter and a 65-54 victory against No. 10 Therrell.

Perhaps the Hornets are seeking redemption for the way last season ended. In the Class AAA semifinals, they had eventual state champion Morgan County on the ropes, leading by 15 points in the third quarter. But to hear Bailey tell it, they were bit by the turnover bug. The play slipped, and Morgan County won 64-61 on a 3-point shot as time expired.

“We were heartbroken,” Bailey said. “We knew what we’d worked so hard for. We just didn’t pull through.”

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Thornton goes up for a jumper. (Henry Taylor/AJC)

Reddick said the pain of the loss was compounded by how the Hornets’ 2014-15 season ended, also with a loss to Morgan County, 78-50 in the AAA quarterfinals.

“It was doubly cruel because the year before there was an ice storm and the schools were shut down,” Reddick said. “We couldn’t practice or prepare for the game; we just had to go out and play. It was a hard pill to swallow.”

Bailey said the team has learned from last season’s semifinals loss, and with nine of the 10 players on the roster being upperclassmen, they’ll get a different outcome time around.

“Now we know what do with a lead like that,” he said. “We have to keep going like we’re losing. If we’re up by 20, we have to play like we’re down by 20.”

The Hornets are working to bring South Atlanta its second state championship in school history. Reddick’s Hornets won the AAA title in 2009, when they were led by Derrick Favors, now a star forward for the Utah Jazz.

Ask Thornton, and there’s not much of a question how the 2016-17 season will end for the Hornets.

“We’re winning state — no doubt,” he said.

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