Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

ALBANY -- Westover's Onochie Ochie's voice was soft. No need to yell or scream. No need for any false bravado.

"I'm excited about playing Monroe,'' he said. "It's not personal. It has nothing to do with the incident. I'm excited because of the rivalry. It's just the rivalry.''

Just the rivalry.

'Nuff said. But there is so much more to this rivalry between Westover and Monroe, this toughest-ticket-in-town backyard game of hoops that has most of Albany talking and the rest of the state looking to this corner of the Georgia, where two of the best boys high school basketball teams in the state have taken an ageless rivalry and made it even better.

Better because so much is at stake. Better because Ochie's dramatic return to the court gives tonight's rematch a new dimension, and better yet because both teams have been on such different paths since the last meeting, roads that lead them to tonight's Monroe-Westover game -- a game simply being called Round 2.

"What does Round 2 mean to me? It's a big game, a real big game -- a rivalry game and a region game. It means a lot,'' said Monroe coach Marquis Davis.

It also means the return of Ochie, a Super 6er who left the first meeting in an ambulance. Ochie fell to the floor in the opening minutes of the Jan. 8 game, hit his head and was knocked out. He was rushed to a nearby hospital and released later that night. Monroe won the game 61-58.

Ochie also injured his shoulder and sat out more than three weeks. He returned to the court Tuesday against Worth County. And what a return. Ochie, who is 6-foot 6 with the range to hit outside jumpers, slammed home four dunks, scored 19 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked two shots.

Westover fans were heard shouting in the stands: "Ochie's back!''

"Ochie is back,'' Davis said. "Will Ochie make a difference? Yes, he will. He's an important member of their team. Ochie is one of their leaders. When your leader goes down, it takes something from the team..''

Most of Albany believes Ochie will make a difference. In an internet poll this week by The Herald, voters were asked if the Ochie's return would mean a Westover victory, and they said it would, voting 57.1 percent to 42.9 in favor of a Westover win.

Polls don't win basketball games, but they do lift spirits. Just look at Monroe, where the Tornadoes took that victory over Westover last month and have run with it -- all the way to the No. 1 ranking in the Georgia Sports Writers Association AAA poll.

It's the first time Monroe, which was The Herald's No. 1 team since before the season began, has been ranked No. 1 in the state. The lofty ranking hasn't hurt the Tornadoes, who are 20-0.

"We're at the top of the mountain,'' said Monroe Super 6er Robert Arnold. "And the view from here is lovely.''

Arnold not only likes the view, he likes Monroe's chances of going unbeaten (24-0) through the regular season. He went so far as to guarantee an unbeaten season two weeks ago. So of course, he thinks Monroe will win tonight.

"I don't think them getting Ochie back will matter,'' Arnold said. "They played us hard without him, and they will play us hard with him. We just have to bring our A-game against them. If we bring our A game, we'll win. I know they have Ochie back, but this game is at Monroe and that will make a big difference.''

The difference is there won't be any breathing room in Monroe's gym, which sits about 850. More than twice that many people showed up to see the last game, and many were turned away from Westover's gym, which seats more than 1,200. It was packed that night with dozens standing in crowded corners, elbow to elbow. There was discussion about moving the game to a larger facility, but that idea was ultimately dismissed because it wouldn't be fair for Monroe to give up a home court advantage.

"It was crazy at the last game, but it will be even crazier in the Monroe gym, because it's so much smaller,'' Arnold said. "It's going to be packed and the fans are going to be right on top of you. It was wild last time. (But) iIt will be even wilder (this game).''

Crazy? Wild? Those are constants.

Both teams are different. Monroe's outside game is much better, and now that Carlos Brown and Brandon Blakely are making more outside shots, it has given the Tornadoes even more room to do what they do best -- beat teams in the paint with Arnold, Brandon Johnson and Rontavius Gilbert, who has emerged as a force off the bench.

Westover not only brings back Ochie, but the Patriots bring back a different team.

"There's a different feeling, and I do think we are a different team,'' said Westover's Chris Wheeler, who had to take over inside for Westover. "With Ochie out I think everyone knew they had to step up their game. We didn't have his blocks or his scoring inside. I know I had to do a lot more of the dirty work. Nobody is happier to have him back than me.''

Wheeler improved so much that he even had a 32-point, 12-rebound night against Cairo.

"I think everybody got better while Ochie was out,'' said Westover guard Shevren Keaton "All four starters are better because we had to pick up the scoring. We had to pick up our game, and in most cases we did.''

The Patriots (18-3) lost three games without Ochie, including the Monroe game and an embarrassing loss to Crisp County, a team Westover beat 90-64 earlier.

"That's the other reason we're a different team,'' Keaton said. "Those losses made us closer. Nobody wanted to lose those games, but those losses brought us together.''

Westover is ranked No. 9 in the state, and many Patriot fans believe with Ochie back in the fold their team will be poised for another run back to the state final. That's another reason tonight's game is called Round 2. The two teams will likely meet in the Region 1-AAA final, and -- if they both kept winning -- they could face each other in the state title game in Macon.

Westover could be the host to the region tournament, but the region site will be determined by the girls regular season champ. The Lady Patriots (18-3, 9-2) are tied with Peach County for first place, and can't afford to lose to Monroe, which came back from a 16-point deficit to beat Westover, 61-56 in their version of Round 1

It might not be fair to give this game a boxing title, but that's the way Westover coach Dallis Smith sees it.

"Monroe is such a big team,'' he said. "Those are the kind of teams we know we will have to play down the road. We're going to have to fight for everything inside. We will see what kind of heart we have.''

And the rivalry?

"If you can't get up for this game, you don't need to be playing basketball,'' Smith said.

Like Ochie said -- "It's the rivalry..."