Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

MACON -- It was just after losing to Crisp County in late January, an embarrassing double-digit loss that hit Westover where it hurt the most -- its pride.

If this season had a bottom, this was it. The Patriots had already lost a close game to Monroe, and now they had fallen to a team they had handled easily earlier in the season, 90-64.

So the day after the Crisp loss, Westover coach Dallis Smith had a meeting -- a hard, no frills, heart-to-heart.

"It was a tough meeting. No one sugar-coated anything,'' Westover guard Shevren Keaton said. "It was about family and about what Westover means. Coach told us to look at what it says on the front of our jerseys, look at it and know what it means.''

It says Westover and it means...

"It means tradition and everything that has happened here,'' said Westover senior Chris Wheeler, who is averaging 14 points and eight rebounds. "And you want to be a part of that. You want to be remembered as helping that Westover tradition, like passing the torch.''

Smith talks about that tradition a lot, and he hammered it home at that meeting after the Crisp loss.

And the Patriots have not been the same since.

Six days later, they beat Herald -- and state -- No. 1 ranked Monroe, 77-63, and then came back to beat Monroe, 80-61, to win the Region 1-AAA title. And they haven't slowed down.

They've marched all the way to the Macon Coliseum, where Westover (24-4) meets Columbia (26-5) at 5:30 p.m today in the GHSA Class AAA Final Four.

The Patriots won't need a GPS to get there. Nobody knows the way to the Final Four like the kids from The Boston Garden.

No team in Georgia has this kind of tradition. Just look at the numbers: Westover is making its 12th appearance in the Final Four since 1988, and the Patriots have played in the title game in nine of those previous 11 trips. Oh, and they've also won six state championships.

There's not another program in the state that can say that. What is even more remarkable is that the Patriots live in Albany's basketball hotbed, where the rivalries with Albany High, Dougherty and Monroe are as good as any in Georgia. And yet here they are, passing that torch again.

It's a way of life at Westover, a feeling that there is something bigger than you are, something grand and meaningful, a legacy that was born with the late legendary coach Willie Boston and lives on today. It's a feeling every kid who puts on that blue and red jersey feels the minute he walks onto the Westover court -- A.K.A. The Boston Garden, where the walls are draped in banners and bleeding with tradition.

"That tradition means a lot,'' said senior Onochie Ochie, who is averaging 14 points, six rebounds and three blocks. "You see all the banners, and think about all the strong teams that have been here and all the great players who have come through here. I'm so glad this team has continued the Westover legacy.''

When Smith met with his kids last summer, the first thing he talked about was winning a state title, and now his team is two victories away -- even though they face what may be the best team in Georgia, regardless of class.

Columbia is ranked nationally by both ESPN and USA Today, and has nine players who are 6-foot-5 or taller, including a pair of 6-8 centers, a 6-7 forward and a pair of 6-6 forwards. And the best player is 6-5 guard JerShon Cobb, who has already inked with Northwestern.

The Eagles, who are making their fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four, haven't lost a game in Georgia this season. All five losses are to out of state teams, including some big-name programs such as Houston Yates and Oak Hill Academy (Va.), and they own victories against teams from Waukegan (Ill.), Gonzaga (Wash.), Concord (N.C.), Cedar Hill (Texas), Arlington Day (Fl.) and Hamilton (Ariz.).

The Patriots fell in the title game a year ago to Georgia Tech star Derrick Favors and South Atlanta, but avenged that loss last week in the Elite Eight, coming back to win 67-62 in overtime against a much taller Hornets team without Ochie and Wheeler, who fouled out early in the fourth quarter.

"There's a rich tradition here, and that's half of (our success),'' Smith said. "It instills in people to believe they can win. I know probably no one thought we had a chance (against South Atlanta last week) with our big kids out. But the kids and the coaches never thought about losing. We believed we could win.''

It's a tradition that starts early. Keaton and guard Anthony Ball knew about it growing up and dreamed of being part of Westover's tradition.

"We take it to heart,'' said Ball, who averages 10 points and three steals a game. "It motivates us to play at another level.''

It's evident on the court. Ball may average 10 points, but last week when Westover couldn't find the basket and fell behind by 10, it was Ball who stepped up to hit back-to-back 3s to help the Pats charge back and close it to four.

Junior Malcolm Sapp has also done it all year, stepping up to have monster games in big showdowns against Monroe, scoring 47 points between those two victories, hitting 3-pointer after 3-pointer. Sapp went 0-for-8 in the first half against South Atlanta, but Smith had confidence in his sharpshooter and told him to keep firing. Sapp scored 20 of his 21 points in the second half to lead the comeback.

"The tradition pushes us to strive to be like the other teams at Westover,'' said Keaton, whose quickness and court savvy has carried Westover all season. "You see the banners. We know we are playing for more than ourselves. We're playing for everyone who has come through Westover, every player, coach Boston, everyone.''