ALBANY -- Wouldn't you know it? Monroe and Westover meet to see who is No. 1.
That's right. That's what tonight's 8:30 showdown in the Albany Civic Center is all about for Albany's two powerhouse programs, two teams that bring as much pride and promise onto the court as they bring size and savvy.
They bring that and more.
They have to. That's how rich and deep this rivalry runs -- this heart of the Good Life City rivalry that has everything except Ray Charles singing the National Anthem. If you want to know what Albany is all about, just go to a Monroe-Westover basketball game, where the love for the sport mingles with an unrelenting passion that's ignited by two loyal communities that want to stick their chests out and shout to the heavens in support of their team.
"It will be jammed packed,'' Monroe coach Marquis Davis said during practice Monday. "It wouldn't matter when they play this game. They could play it on Sunday and it would be packed.''
The fans would show up for this one, no matter what the records are, but tonight's game has that extra icing -- or better yet, make it that extra spice.
It's been a long and winding road for both teams with some unpredictable bumps, but somehow they've each arrived here tied for first place in the Region 1-AAA race. Monroe is at 9-2 and Westover, which ends the regular season against Americus-Sumter at home Friday, is 8-2 in 1-AAA and can claim the top spot with a win tonight -- coupled with a win against Americus-Sumter (7-4 and 2-8 in the region). Americus and Dougherty are also part of tonight's quadrupleheader action, facing each other in a girls game at 4 p.m. at the Civic Center, followed by the boys game at 7:30 p.m.
But the spotlight will be Monroe-Westover.
"Imagine that,'' said Westover coach Dallis Smith with a smile.
It has been frustrating at times for the Patriots, who have lost an uncharacteristic nine times this season and were dropped out of The Herald's Top 5 Poll two weeks ago for the first time since it was created in 2008.
But here they are -- right where they have wanted to be all along, looking Monroe eye-to-eye for the top seed in the region.
"The kids have gutted it out and we have the opportunity to be No. 1,'' Smith said. "We're where we need to be. We control our own destiny."
Westover (14-9) won the region title last year after taking two out of three games against Monroe, winning the rubber game at home in the Region 1-AAA final and then driving all the way to the Final Four. Tonight's winner gets the top seed in next week's region tournament and the home-court advantage. There's a chance the region title game could be played in the Civic Center, but right now tonight's winner will dictate where that game is going to be played.
"This game is important for a lot of reasons. You set your goals and this is one of them,'' said Davis, who would like to end the regular season on a high note and have the luxury of being the top seed next week. "Our region is tough, so you want to be the No. 1 seed. You want to end the regular season with momentum going into the region tournament.''
And there's more.
"And it's Monroe and Westover,'' he said. "It's a rivalry that has been around for a long time. You can throw out the records.''
Monroe opened the season at 10-0, before dropping three games over an 11-day stretch, but the Tornadoes rebounded from a couple of big upsets by Worth County and Cairo and bring a nine-game winning streak into tonight's game.
The Tornadoes won the first meeting against Westover, 42-37, at the Civic Center on Jan. 14, but both teams have changed since then. Monroe is running more, scoring more in transition and the Tornadoes' two big men, Rantavious Gilbert -- who was out with a back injury during the tough stretch of losses -- and Jabari McGhee are playing better and better as of late. Monroe's guards, led by senior Ted Hosley, have played better as well, and Davis has used a variety of rotations with Daniel House and Bamba Dioum at the guard spot, along with Hosley and Carlos Brown, a 6-foot-5 wing who burned Westover in the first meeting with his 3-point shooting.
But to beat Monroe, you have to beat the big men, 6-7 McGhee and 6-8 Gilbert.
"Jabari was probably averaging 16 points and nine rebounds a game, but during this last stretch (in our nine-game winning streak) he's closer to (19-20) points a game and (more than 12 rebounds),'' Davis said. "And Rantavious has been a defensive terror all year. We've been playing better, getting more opportunities at the basket, and our transition game has picked up. I think we're jelling at the right time.''
Monroe has been ranked No. 1 by The Herald since Day 1, and it's amazing the Tornadoes aren't ranked in the state's Top 10 poll. None of that will matter if Monroe makes a run at the state title. The first step is winning the top seed in the region, and that could happen tonight.
"We know how important this game is,'' McGhee said. "We want to be the top seed in the region. Everybody is talking about this game. It's Monroe and Westover. It's a lot of hype. People come up to you and are talking about how we have to win.''
No one has to say much.
"You know everyone will play hard in this game,'' McGhee added. "I know every one of my teammates will go hard because they don't want to lose to Westover -- and neither do I. It's easy for us (to want to) play hard and get (up) to play them.''
Every time these teams play, the intensity heats up the building and goes through the roof.
"It's a great rivalry,'' Gilbert said. "We love to play in games like this.''
Westover, which finished second in the state two years ago and lost to state champ Columbia in the Final Four last year, has the same aspirations to win a state title and wants the No. 1 seed just as much as Monroe. The Patriots lost to Monroe by five points in Round 1, but they missed seven shots in the final minute.
"We had some shots at the end,'' Smith said. "(But) the last couple of games we've been playing well. It's a good time to be playing good basketball. We're at the point where everyone is on the same page.''
Westover has two shooters who can rip down the nets with anyone in Super 6er Malcolm Sapp and Dequan Green. Sapp, who scored more than 20 points last year in both of Westover's wins against Monroe, was held to six points the first time around, while Green led the Patriots with 15.
"They have two good shooters in Green and Sapp and I thought we did a good job last time knowing where they were,'' Davis said. "You have to know where they are at all times.''
Monroe fans know where Gilbert and McGhee are. They live inside and feed off the glass. Gilbert and McGhee combined to score 24 points and grab 19 rebounds, while Gilbert added three blocked shots in the first game against Westover.
But this is Round 2, and these two teams could be meeting next week for a third time for the Region 1-AAA title, just like they did a year ago.
"You have to be ready,'' Gilbert said. "We know that. The key is to execute and not have any let downs. You can't have let downs in this game.