When the Fayette County boys basketball team takes the court on Saturday for its Final Four appearance, they’ll be led by three guys who have been together since middle school.
In an era when state contenders are rarely grown, the Tigers have done it behind the trio of Noah Gurley, Austin Nesmith and Phillip Young. The trio began playing alongside each other when they were young and will complete their careers this season, together to the end.
“They’ve been brothers the whole way,” said Fayette County coach Andre Flynn. “They’ve worked hard and they’ve been a big part of what we’ve tried to develop on the Southside.”
The Tigers are making their first trip to the Final Four since 2011, when Adam Smith (Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech) was a senior. Fayette County got to the second round last year; beating Buford (Saturday’s semifinal foe) in the first round before losing in overtime to Monroe-Albany.
Gurley is a 6-foot-8 wing who averages 18.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Flynn refers to Gurley, who has signed with Furman, as the team’s anchor.
Nesmith, a 5-11 point guard, makes the team go. He’s worked hard in the weight room to become more durable. Nesmith averages 14.3 points, 6.0 assists and 1.7 steals.
Young, a 6-1 guard, has great athleticism. He’s able to get to the rim and does a lot of the dirty work. He averages 11.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
“And they’re all three great kids,” Flynn said. “They work hard and I’m proud of them. When you work hard, this is what you get.”
Flynn understands his team may be considered an underdog against Buford, but said his team isn’t going to back away from the challenge.
“We’ve got to play hard and see what happens,” he said. “Buford is a great team and it’s going to be a challenge. The only thing we can control is that we’ll play hard and do the best we can with what we have.”
The Class AAAAA semifinals will all be played at Columbus State on Saturday. The girls games will feature defending champion Southwest DeKalb vs. Flowery Branch at 2 p.m. and Buford vs. Griffin at 6 p.m. The boys semifinals are defending champion Miller Grove vs. Cedar Shoals at 4 p.m. and Buford vs. Fayette County at 8 p.m.
Here’s a look at the Class AAAAA Final Four teams:
Ranking: No. 1 seed from Region 8; ranked No. 1 in state.
Coach: Eddie Martin
Top players: F Marcus Watson, PG Alex Jones, F David Viti
How they got here: Def. Lithia Springs 75-63, def. New Hampstead 69-68, def. Warner Robins 94-72.
Prospectus: On offense the Wolves have superior ball movement, with Jones a master at running the offense. Although the Wolves are a young team (they start two juniors and two sophomores), Jones and Watson are both all-state caliber. Watson, a 6-6 sophomore, is as good outside as he is inside and David Viti (whose father played for Brookwood when Martin coached there) has a nice 3-point shot and the ability to drive. The team plays hard and is extremely well coached.
Ranking: No. 2 seed from Region 8; ranked No. 2 in state.
Coach: Dreco Thomas
Top players: G Phlandrous Fleming, F Stavion Stevenson, F Quenjarvis Hall
How they got here: Def. Maynard Jackson 64-47, def. Statesboro 48-35, def. Lithonia 59-52.
Prospectus: The Jaguars are going to the Final Four for the third straight year; they lost to Allatoona by two points in 2016 and fell to Brunswick by one point in 2015. Fleming, who has signed with the College of Charleston, is a Player of the Year contender. He had 26 points in the quarterfinal win over Lithonia. Three of the team’s four losses have come against No. 1-ranked Buford, one of them in overtime.
Ranking: No. 1 seed from Region 3; ranked No. 6 in state.
Coach: Andre Flynn
Top players: F Noah Gurley, PG Austin Nesmith, F Phillip Young
How they got here: Def. Bainbridge 58-48, def. Columbia 74-51, def. Carver-Atlanta 65-52
Prospectus: Coach Andre Flynn says his team may not pass the “eye test” but manages to get things done on the court. Gurley, Nesmith and Young have been playing together since middle school and they seem to operate with one mind. The 6-foot-8 Gurley, a Furman signee, averages 18.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Nesmith makes the team go and averages 14.3 points and 6.0 assists. Young is an athletic achiever who averages 11.1 points and 6.4 rebounds.
Ranking: No. 1 seed from Region 5; ranked No. 4 in state.
Coach: Rasul Chester
Top players: G Naquante Hardy, F Kevin Paige, G Maurice Harvey, F Jermon Clark
How they got here: Def. Paulding County 73-46, def. Starr’s Mill 55-33, def. Riverwood 59-43.
Prospectus: The Wolverines may have a new coach and a line lineup, but they’re back in the semifinals for the ninth time in 10 years. Hardy averages 19.5 points (second-best in DeKalb County) and shoots 52 percent from the field; he has verbally commited to Alabama A&M. Paige leads with 7.8 rebounds. Miller Grove still carries a deep commitment to defense and a selfless approach to offense. It’s no wonder the Wolvies are back in the Final Four.
Ranking: No. 1 seed from Region 8; ranked No. 2 in state.
Coach: Gene Durden
Top players: G Tori Ozment, F Audrey Weiner, G Rachel Dobbs, F Jessic Nelson
How they got here: Def. Decatur 78-36, def. Ware County 76-41, def. Warner Robins 77-56.
Prospectus: The Wolves come at you with a double-dose of intensity from the opening tip and never let up. Buford generates tons of steals and converts them into baskets at the other end. The Wolves used the pressure to confuse and overwhelm once-beaten Warner Robins in the quarterfinals. Ozment, a 6-foot junior, is the top talent and top recruit, but Buford is by definition a team success.
Ranking: No. 2 seed from Region 8; ranked No. 6 in state.
Coach: Courtney Newton-Gonzalez
Top players: G Lexie Sengkhammee, F Taniyah Worth, F Juliane Sutton
How they got here: Def. North Springs 58-32, def. Statesboro 59-36, def. Carrollton 61-46.
Prospectus: The Falcons have lost three times to No. 1 Buford and once to AAA power Greater Atlanta Christian. Although they lost five starters from last year’s Elite Eight team, Flowery Branch plays tenacious man-to-man defense to create havoc. Sengkhammee is an outstanding 3-point shooter and Worth can do a little bit of everything.
Ranking: No. 1 seed from Region 5; ranked No. 1 in state
Coach: Veronica Lee
Top players: C Andeija Puckett, F Daisya Reid, PG Zacoria Berry
How they got here: Def. Veterans 54-38, def. Arabia Mountain 49-36, def. Maynard Jackson 66-49.
Prospectus: The Bears have perhaps the top inside presence remaining. Center Andeija Puckett, who has signed with Cincinnati, averages 17.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks and is in contention for 5-A Player of the Year honors. Reid and Berry are two sophomores who haven’t been overwhelmed by the spotlight; Reid averages 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds, Berry averages 8.2 points, 3.2 assists and 4.0 steals.
Ranking: No. 1 seed from Region 5; ranked No. 3 in state.
Coach: Kathy Walton
Top players: G Jada Walton, G Lanee Edwards, C Ruona Uwusiaba
How they got here: Def. Kell 64-25, def. McIntosh 45-36, def. Eagle’s Landing 71-56.
Prospectus: The defending state champions bring one of the deadliest defenses to the court every night. The Panthers are relentless and produce plenty of points from their defensive pressure. Guard Jada Walton, a Texas A&M signee, averages 13.5 points and shoots 47 percent from the field. Center Ruoana Uwusiaba averages 9.9 points and 7.7 rebounds and is a terrific interior defender. This group plays well together, has little ego and doesn’t get flustered.