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No. 1 Monroe at No. 2 Westover: Something's gotta give

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Antony Ball can't leave home without hearing about it.

Shevren Keaton can't look at his phone without seeing it.

And Chris Wheeler?

"I can't go anywhere without someone coming up to me, complete strangers, and talking to me about this game" Wheeler said. "I was in the mall and people I don't know are asking me, 'Chris, are you ready for the game?' "

Ball said he can't get out of the neighborhood.

"The minute I walk out the door, the mailman, the neighbors, everybody is saying 'Are you ready for this game,' " Ball said. "It really is that bad.''

And Keaton?

"I have so many texts and e-mails, I can't even count them all,'' he said. "Every time I look at my phone someone is texting me about this game. They all say the same thing -- 'You better win.' "

Ball, Keaton and Wheeler all play for The Herald No. 2-ranked Westover's boys basketball team (11-0), but the climate is the same over at No. 1 Monroe High (10-0), where there's just as much talk, just as much heat and just as much passion growing for tonight's showdown between Southwest Georgia's top two high school teams.

And as if this game needed any more spice to it, Monroe's Brandon Johnson provided it Thursday after practice.

"If we play the way we're supposed to play, this will be a piece of cake,'' Johnson said. "I'm just that confident. And beating them will taste as sweet as red velvet cake.''

Piece of cake?

You can bet that quote will show up on a few bulletin boards.

As if either team needed any more motivation. It's always big, but tonight's game --- this rivalry that has all of Albany churning -- has never been bigger. For the first time, both teams enter the game unbeaten, both teams have a chance to go on to win a state title, and both teams ... well, let's just say they don't break much bread together.

And as the clocks ticks toward tonight's 8:30 tipoff at the Westover gym, expect the tension to grow.

"It's going to be crazy,'' Keaton said. "When somebody dunks, the crowd is just going to go wild.''

Wheeler said: "There's going to be so much energy in this gym. You won't be able to hear yourself think..''

But Westover can hear Monroe coming.

The Tornadoes -- like most everyone else -- have been looking up to Westover for years, but they take the court tonight with the honor of being ranked one spot ahead of its longtime rival.

"You look at them on paper and they're the team to beat,'' Westover coach Dallis Smith said. "Look at their size and their experience. They have two (Herald) Super 6 players who played a lot last year.''

Monroe has size, talent and Super 6ers Robert Arnold and Johnson, but Westover has it's own Super 6er in Onochie Ochie, a sky-walker who can hang with anyone in Albany.

And Westover is still Westover.

No one has the rich tradition, the six state titles, the aura and the legacy the Patriots bring to the court. And tonight's game is on their court -- the Boston Garden, affectionately named for legendary coach Willie Boston.

It's the classic tale of the up-and-comer trying to take down the king of the hill.

"They're just getting used to it. We're true to it,'' said Keaton, Ball and Wheeler in unison.

The two teams will be more than used to each other before this season ends. And as big as this game is, tonight is just Round 1.

They'll meet again on Monroe's court next month, and will likely face each other in the Region Tournament. The two teams split games last year (both won on the road) and then Westover beat Monroe for the Region 1-AAA title on its way to the state final. The way the GHSA is set up, there is the possibility Monroe and Westover could actually face each other in the state title game in Macon.

Both teams may be just that good. The rivalry couldn't be better.

"This rivalry has been going on since I was a kid,'' said Monroe coach Marquis Davis, who -- in just three years -- has made Monroe a power. "If we beat them, it would be a big win not only for the school and the community, but a big boost for our guys. People have been saying we haven't played anybody and that we haven't blown anyone out.

"If we beat Westover, it would solidify us as (the top team in Southwest Georgia).''

Indeed.

Westover is the measuring stick, the Yankees of high school hoops -- the team everyone wants to beat.

"They have been the team. Look what they've done the past two decades,'' Davis said.

It's that tradition that may give Westover an edge, and why Monroe's fans are so eager to change things.

"Westover has the bragging rights, and that's what (the Monroe fans) want,'' Monroe guard Carlos Brown said. "People come up to you all the time and say 'I need this win.' People want the bragging rights. People have been talking about this game for weeks.''

And if this cake needed any more icing,

consider this:

Tonight will be the debut of sophomore hoops star Dequan Green, who recently transferred from Sherwood to Westover, where his father former NBA player Dontonio Wingfield was a legendary player.

Get there early for this one.

"Everyone is talking about this game every where I go,'' Smith said. "It's going to be packed. They'll be hanging from the rafters.''