Title game previews

On Saturday, the Class AA state basketball championships will be played at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion. The Rabun County girls and Laney tip off at 2 p.m. and the Swainsboro boys take on South Atlanta at 4 p.m.

Below are previews for both games. Also, if you haven’t yet had the chance, be sure to read the story about Swainsboro’s incredible journey to the title game. Coincidentally, I also profiled South Atlanta earlier this season.

(For an updated boys bracket, go here. For an updated girls bracket, go here. For a rundown of the semifinals and a review of playoff predictions made before the tournaments started, go here.)

Girls:

No. 1 Laney vs. No. 5 Rabun County
Records/playoff seeds: Laney (30-1; No. 1, Region 4), Rabun County (29-2, No. 1, Region 8)
Last meeting: None of record dating back to the 2006-07 season.

One thing about this game is certain — the Lady Wildcats will take home the title. The only question is which Lady Wildcats team will it be? Laney and Rabun County share the same nickname, but the similarities don’t end there. Both teams are strong defensively, play at an up-tempo pace and have blown out their tournament opponents on the way to to the title game.

Given the collision course the two have been on, something’s going to give. Will this be a close game, or will one Lady Wildcats team continue its tear through the postseason uncontested?

“I think it’s going to come down to who has the least turnovers and who executes on the offensive end,” Lady Wildcats coach DeeDee Dillard said.

Here are the scores for each Lady Wildcats team in the playoffs:

Rabun County – Round 1, 70-40 (Therrell); Round 2, 79-65 (Vidalia); Quarterfinals, 70-54 (Fitzgerald); Semifinals, 65-37 (Bleckley County).

Laney – Round 1, 70-44 (Swainsboro); Round 2, 78-61 (Douglass); Quarterfinals, 85-30 (Heard County); Semifinals, 65-49 (Model).

Dillard provides some perspective for Rabun County’s playoff wins, characterizing the scores as “misleading.” She also believes her team’s previous lopsided outcomes in the tournament won’t dictate what will happen in the title game.

“We were only up by four points against Fitzgerald at halftime,” Dillard said. “Then we went on a 12-2 run and that kind of gave us some breathing room. For the most part, it’s not about the past, but how well we’ll execute our game plan. I don’t think it’s an advantage or disadvantage (that both Laney and Rabun County have posted double-digit wins in the playoffs).”

The two teams’ success has been sustained all season. Combined, they have just three losses between them.

Laney is on a 29-game win streak and its only loss came on Nov. 22 to the North Augusta Yellow Jackets, 62-56. For perspective, the Yellow Jackets are the No. 1 overall team in South Carolina — regardless of classification — and won the South Carolina High School League’s Class AAAA state championship 61-37 to complete a 28-0 season. All season, no team came closer to beating North Augusta than Laney.

Rabun County lost to Class A-Private semifinalist Lakeview Academy 67-60 on Nov. 22 and 49-45 to No. 8 Banks County on Jan. 27 for their only region loss. Since then, Rabun County has won nine straight, with all wins except for a 59-51 victory at Monticello on Jan. 28 coming in double digits.

Laney is just two seasons removed its only state title, which came in 2015 in Class AAA. For Rabun County, it’s the program’s first-ever appearance in a state title game. Until this season, Rabun County had never reached the semifinals.

Laney is led by De’Sha Benjamin, a 5-foot-11 junior guard-forward and Jill of all trades who is averaging 20 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.7 steals, 2.1 blocks and 2.1 assists. Rabun County is led by senior Savanna Scott, a 5-foot-9 guard who surpassed the 1,000 point mark for her career this season.

Other top players for Laney include Aubriana Bonner, Jhessyka Williams, Jaiden Hamilton and Jazmine Bartlett, all of whom are upperclassmen except for Hamilton, who is a sophomore. Outside of the starting five, no other player averages more than 8 minutes of playing time.

“Laney is a very talented team with a lot of experience,” Dillard said. “I’ve heard great things about (Benjamin). She’ll be a challenge for us, but all of their starting five are very good and athletic. They can run the floor and shoot from the outside. They’re a very good team, so we know we’ll have to play our best.”

Rabun County’s key players outside of Scott are seniors Hallie Reeves and Tessa Matheson, along with sophomores Brooke Henricks and Georgia Stockton. Dillard believes that for Rabun County to have a chance at the upset, her team will have to orchestrate a balanced scoring attack by spreading the ball around on offense while stopping Laney’s transition game.

“We have to do what we do well,” Dillard said. “We have to control the tempo, control the boards and not give them any second-chance opportunities.”

Messages left at Laney for coach Otis Smart were not returned by publish time. 

Boys:

No. 1 South Atlanta vs. Swainsboro
Records/playoff seeds: South Atlanta (28-1; No. 1, Region 6), Swainsboro (21-10, No. 1, Region 2)
Last meeting: None of record dating back to the 2005-06 season.

This game could be viewed as somewhat of a David vs. Goliath matchup, given the Hornets have been ranked No. 1 all season while the Tigers are unranked. In reality, both teams are playing at a high level entering this game and are capable of taking home the championship hardware.

The Hornets are on a 26-game win streak, while the Tigers have won a moderate-in-comparison six games in a row. This will be a classic battle between a team that has consistently lived up to very high expectations all season going against a team that is on a hot streak.

Getting to the title game was a relative struggle for the Hornets, considering how well they’d played all season. They barely escaped their quarterfinal matchup with unranked Washington County, trailing 9-0 early before a second-half surge led by Tyler Thornton’s 22 points — he was held scoreless in the first half — which guided them to a 75-69 overtime win. In their semifinal against No. 10 Josey, they managed just four points in the first quarter before coming alive and dashing to a 61-50 win.

Long-time Hornets coach Michael Reddick said that playoff competition and a grueling season were contributing factors to their slow starts the last two rounds.

“We played two good teams,” he said. “I take nothing away from them. We’re nursing some injuries and we’re banged up. Five of our kids had to go to therapy before the Washington County game and we only have 10 guys on the team.”

Fortunately for South Atlanta, the championship will be played on Saturday, the final day of the basketball calendar. Other title games are being played as early as Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. That gives the Hornets a full week of rest from when they played in the semifinals last Saturday, and that will be sufficient time for the team to return to health, Reddick said.

For Swainsboro, it was a little bit of a different path to the title game. The Tigers spent the beginning of the season getting acclimated with a coaching staff that underwent an overhaul following the tragic and unexpected passing of coach Bobby Andrews. Brice Hobbs, who was one of Andrews’ best friends, came from Jenkins County to take over the Tigers and they started the season 0-3 and were just 6-5 at the end of 2016.

It took an adjustment to the team’s practice format — one that involved heavily increasing the amount of running players did — for them to gain the strength and endurance to turn their season around. The Tigers are 17-5 in 2017.

Hobbs credits this season’s amazing run to Andrews’ inspiration and the coaching staff — Neal David, Dwight Smith and Quin McKinney — that Andrews handpicked shortly before his death.

“That’s the unique thing about this season,” Hobbs said. “(Andrews) put the whole staff together before he passed, and I felt like I had to have all of them (David, Smith and McKinney) set in place to keep this program going. I felt like if I couldn’t get this staff together, it wasn’t going to work. I needed all of them to push the kids.”

And “push” is what the Tigers have done to get to this point. Led by senior guard Jaylan McKinney, the Tigers beat No. 8 Chattooga in the quarterfinals and No. 5 Dublin in the semifinals. Like with the Hornets’ past two games, the wins came in extremely close contests.

The title game will be played in Atlanta, which means a short drive for the Hornets but a long one for the Tigers. Neither coach sees that as an advantage or disadvantage, with the court in a neutral arena.

“Right now, our kids are so locked in they’re not thinking about that,” Hobbs said.

“We’ve never been inside that gym,” Reddick said. “Sometimes it’s easier when you get away from home. We like to travel. We played at (Alexander Colliseum, Georgia Tech’s previous basketball arena) in ’03 and it wasn’t an advantage.”

This is true. In 2003, the Hornets lost to Griffin in the Class AAAA championship at Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum, which later became McCamish Pavilion after $45 million worth of renovations.

Both programs are seeking their second state title and first in quite awhile. The Hornets last won in 2009, when they had Derrick Favors and were the AAA champs. The Tigers last won in 1996, capturing the AA title long before anyone on this season’s team was born.

While the Tigers are vying for a win in honor of their fallen coach, the Hornets are playing for something too. Most of the seniors have been playing together since elementary school, so for them this is their final season together after more than a decade and they have a chance to go out on top.

“We’re winning state — no doubt,” Thornton said in mid-January.

“They a’ight,” Jaylan McKinney said of the Hornets after watching their semifinal game. “We feel good going in.”

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