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Round 3: No. 1 Monroe vs. No. 2 Westover tonight

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Looks like they made it -- and right on time.

Monroe showed up. Westover showed up. Come on, did you expect anything less?

Not from these state powers, two teams that might be good enough to meet again in the Class AAA boys basketball championship in Macon.

For now, it's even more fun, because Monroe and Westover meet at 8:30 tonight back at Westover's gym, where they both survived scares Thursday night. Only this time they'll meet for the Region 1-AAA title in a game that is sure to be packed to the rafters with fans -- and packed with as much energy and passion as any basketball contest anywhere tonight.

That's what these two bring every time they meet. They have given Albany a season to remember, adding to what was already one of the best rivalries in the state.

They split the first two games that shook the county and sent ripples across Georgia.

Monroe, which had to come back to beat city rival Dougherty, 55-51, late Thursday night in the region semifinals to get here, arrives with a 23-1 record ranked No. 1 by The Herald in Southwest Georgia and

No. 5 in the state AAA poll. The Tornadoes were No. 1 in the state until Westover shocked them two weeks ago, 77-63, at Monroe.

Herald No. 2 Westover -- ninth in the state poll -- shows up after beating Crisp County, 76-72, in a heart-stopping overtime victory in the semifinals earlier Thursday in a game that wasn't decided until the Patriots came back from 72-71 with a mad rush at the end of OT.

"It's a big game. It will be crazy,'' Westover coach Dallis Smith said of the third showdown. "It couldn't have worked out any better for the fans. Monroe is a great team, and (Monroe coach) Marquis (Davis) has done a great job. They are playing with a lot of confidence. We're going to have to be ready.''

Monroe didn't look ready for Dougherty, which got a monster game from MacArthur Gaines, who scored seven of Dougherty's nine-first quarter points and just kept coming at Monroe. He finished with a career-high 19 points, but missed twice in the final 12 seconds of the game.

Herald Super 6er Arabian Williams had a long night for Dougherty, finishing with just seven points. The Trojans will meet Crisp tonight at 5:30 in the consolation game.

Dougherty trailed, 20-13, when the Trojans put together a 11-2 run in the second quarter to take the lead, and they were still hanging onto to the lead when Carlos Brown busted a 3 at the third-quarter buzzer to knot the score at 42-42. The Trojans (11-12) took a 49-48 lead when Gaines hit a 10-footer with 3:15 left. Dougherty tried to hold the ball, and ran off almost two minutes of clock, before Monroe got a chance after a turnover.

In the end it was the same old story for Monroe, which has been led all year by Robert Arnold. And it was Arnold who finally decided this one. He made an inside move, banked in the shot and added the free throw for an and-one play with 1:06 left to lift Monroe again to a 51-49 lead, and Alexander Hunt hit a pair a free throw to make it 52-49. Gaines put back a long rebound to close to 52-51 with 27 seconds, but Arnold hit two more free throws in the closing seconds before Carlos Brown finished it with a free throw for the 55-51 final.

Arnold finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds. Rontavious Gilbert came off the bench and gave Monroe 10 points, four rebounds and four blocked shots.

Westover, meanwhile, kept the date with its own dramatic ending.

Onochie Ochie (16 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks) was fouled after grabbing his ninth rebound of the game and dropped in a pair of free throws with 1:36 left to give Westover a 73-72 lead and Crisp couldn't find the basket, missing four shots in the final minute. Malcolm Sapp, who finished with 22 points, hit two free throws with 9.6 seconds left to make it 75-72, and then Shevren Keaton made the steal of the game with four seconds left before Sapp hit another free throw to seal the win.

"I was a little nervous,'' said Sapp, who scored 21 in the last game against Monroe. "But I knew we would find a way to win. It just feels great to win the game.''

Chris Wheeler had four rebounds in the first four minutes, and finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds.

"I was worried, nervous, scared ... But I knew we would win it,'' Wheeler said.

He had good reason to worry. Crisp, which upset Westover last month, came back from an 18-8 first quarter, and had a chance to win the game in regulation. Crisp's Demonti Dempsey (23 points) hit a long 3 to tie it at 67-67 with 35 seconds left, and Dequan Jackson (18 points) stole the ball in the final seconds and then just missed a jumper at the buzzer.

But Westover (21-4) survived to meet Monroe.

"We like to make it interesting,'' joked Smith, whose team has been in the region final for the last nine years. "Teams like (Crisp) are glad to be playing, and they're gelling at the right time. They played hard.''

No one knows if the Westover kids were looking ahead to Monroe.

"It's a possibility," Smith said. "I hope not. Knowing kids, it was probably on their mind. I was preaching (about how we had lost to Crisp earlier).''

Smith will take the pulpit for Monroe now. He won't have to say much.

The Patriots had been the traditional state power around here for years, but the Tornadoes changed all that early, beating the Pats, 61-58, on Jan. 8 at Westover to make the statement loud and clear that the best team in Southwest Georgia lives on Lippett Drive Then Westover took it away in a jam-packed Monroe gym.

And it will be packed tonight.

"I love (the atmosphere of these games),'' Ochie said. "It will help us get ready for teams we will meet in the state tournament. It will be a crazy-fun time. This one means even more because there's a region championship on the line.''

City rivalry? Yes, as good as any. But it has been even better this season because the two teams have such distinct personalities and the first two games were nothing short of electric.

Now, here they are for Round 3, the ultimate rubber match with a region title and possibly the final bragging rights in the mix -- a game every hoops fan in this part of the state has been pointing to since the first meeting.

They both showed up, right on time.