ALBANY -- Monroe-Westover ...
Anyone who lives in this town knows what that means, knows how deep this rivalry runs, how rich this high school basketball saga feels between two schools, two communities and two factions who line up every year to embrace their Tornadoes and their Patriots in gyms that are packed to the rafters, emotion spilling over to both sides of the Good Life City.
"You can't go anywhere without hearing about Westover and Monroe,'' Westover center Joseph Harrell said this week at practice. "You go to pump your gas, and people come up to you and want to talk about the game. Everyone is talking about this game.''
If you listen closely you can hear them talking in Atlanta.
"I get calls from people, from fans in Atlanta every year wanting to know when Westover is playing Monroe,'' Westover boys coach Dallis Smith said. "It's a game people around the state talk about.''
In case anyone doesn't know, the game is tonight.
But don't worry about being shut out like hundreds of fans were last year when the games were played at Monroe and Westover, where they gave a new meaning to the word standing-room-only as fans packed every available inch of space.
This time, it'll be played on the big stage: the Albany Civic Center, which hosted games last week for the first time since 2004.
"I remember seeing fans sitting on the floor and fans at the top of the balcony, and people lined up (20 deep) in the hallways. It was jammed everywhere. It was an uproar,'' said Harrell, who came off the bench and played in all three showdowns last year. "It's the best atmosphere anywhere.''
And tonight will be even better, because the game has been moved to the Civic Center, where thousands are expected to show up. The girls game between Herald No. 1 Westover (11-1) and Monroe (8-7), which has its own special rivalry, starts at 7 p.m. and boys begin at 8:30 p.m.
The first games since 2004 where played last Friday at the Civic Center, where the paid attendance was just under 3,000. Westover beat Thomasville and Monroe beat Dougherty in the boys doubleheader, but a bigger crowd could show up tonight.
"The atmosphere will be crazy. It will be the biggest game we play so far,'' Monroe's Carlos Brown said Thursday. "It's a big region game and a rivalry game. This has always been a big game. I grew up watching Monroe play Westover. It's for bragging rights. It's for the community. I don't do any bragging, but this is a game for the Monroe fans, the Monroe people. Everyone is talking about it.''
The game couldn't mean more to both programs.
"I remember playing in these games when I was in high school,'' said Smith, who graduated from Westover in 1983. His older siblings went to Monroe but Smith and his twin brother went to Westover. Smith then added: "The rivalry was big back then, and it has just kept getting better over the years. Last year's games were about as good as it gets.''
They were classics.
Monroe won the first one at the Westover gym to stay unbeaten and hand Westover its first loss, then Westover came back and beat the Tornadoes in a shocker at Monroe that ended Monroe's perfect season at 20-0. That set up a showdown for the Region 1-AAA title, at the Westover gym, where the Patriots jumped out to a big lead early only to watch Monroe storm back time and time again before finally running away with the region crown.
The only way they could have met again would have been for the state title, and it almost happened. Westover took the momentum of beating Monroe in the region final and marched all the way to the Final Four, where the Patriots lost to eventual state champ Columbia.
Monroe drove its way through the playoffs until losing by one point on the road (the Tornadoes had to travel because they finished second in the region) to LaGrange, which went on to lose to Columbia in the state title game.
"If Monroe had beaten LaGrange, they would have played for the state title,'' said Harrell, echoing the feelings of every Monroe fan.
Last year's trilogy was so good it makes this year's series even better.
"The games last year really made this matchup special. We were both undefeated when we played in the first matchup, and that made it more exciting, more competitive,'' Monroe coach Marquis Davis said. "Both of us being undefeated made that first game really big. I haven't seen it that big since the mid '90s. This year is an extension of last year. The atmosphere for the game will be the same kind as last year.''
The teams may not be unbeaten this year, but both are good enough to make a run at a state title.
"It doesn't matter if we are 20-0 or 0-20," Davis said. "It's always a big game because of the city rivalry. But both teams have good records (this year), and it will make the game just as exciting as if we were undefeated.''
This is especially a huge contest for Monroe, because after being upset by Cairo on Tuesday, the Tornadoes are 2-2 in the Region 1-AAA race, and Westover (10-5 overall) is 3-0 in region play. A Monroe loss tonight would put the Tornadoes three games behind Westover with seven region games left to play. The team with the best record gets to play host to the Region 1-AAA tournament, but that might be a moot point if the tournament is held in the Civic Center.
"After losing to Cairo on Tuesday, we need to win every region game (left). Period,'' Davis said.
Monroe ripped off a 10-0 start and started the week still ranked No. 1 by The Herald, despite hitting some bumps in the road of late. The Tornadoes (12-3) have been upset twice in the past 10 days, losing on the road to Worth County and Cairo -- two teams that Westover beat easily -- but Monroe was impressive in beating Herald No. 4 Dougherty last Friday.
Monroe beat North Clayton 24 hours after North Clayton beat Westover, which is ranked No. 3 by The Herald, in the U-Save-It Classic at Albany High, but Westover owns victories against all three teams that have beaten Monroe: The Patriots beat Lanier, 55-46, beat Worth, 63-48, and beat Cairo, 73-46.
"You can forget that now,'' Smith said. "You throw out the record and everything else when Westover plays Monroe. It's a big game, a region game and a rivalry game. The atmosphere is great and it usually brings out the best.
"The majority of the time the players step up because of the atmosphere and all the hype of the game. You'll see kids you don't expect to step up step up in this game.''
Smith smiled when he was asked about giving a pep talk before tonight's game.
"You don't need a pep talk for this game,'' he grinned. "When we started practice this week, all I had to do was say 'Monroe,' and people started moving faster.''
Neither team can escape the pregame hype.
At both schools everyone is talking about the game, and it's THE topic of conversations among both teams' fans in the community.
"I dropped off my daughter at (elementary school) the other day, and people were coming up to me talking about the game,'' Smith said. "She has friends (from Monroe), and I remember when we played Monroe last year they were wearing (Monroe colors) green and gold. People get ready for this game. It's good for the city. People know how rich basketball is here. It's really a cool thing, especially for the fans.''
The players started talking about the game in July.
"We were at the Florida State basketball camp and Monroe was there, and we were talking about it then,'' said Westover Super 6er Malcolm Sapp, who torched Monroe for more than 20 points in both Westover victories last year. "We were saying how we couldn't wait to play each other.''
The wait is over, and both teams arrive with new looks but the same plan -- to win bragging rights in town and then win the state title.
"Those are the two biggest games, the state title game and the Monroe game,'' Harrell said. "But Monroe is just about the biggest game you will ever play because of the rivalry. This is the best week in basketball.''
Monroe lost four starters, including Willie Boston Herald Player of the Year Robert Arnold, but returned Brown, who looked at home in the Civic Center, hitting four of five 3-pointers and scoring 16 points last Friday against Dougherty.
Super 6er Rantavious Gilbert, a 6-8 center who averages about six blocks a game, has been nursing a back injury, but he will play tonight. Jabari McGhee, a 6-7 sophomore, has emerged as one of the top players in this part of the state.
Brown and Gilbert remember last year.
"We just didn't have the chemistry we needed after we beat them in the first game,'' Brown said. "I think they wanted it more. But we're hungry this year.''
Added Gilbert: "Real hungry. The Monroe fans expect us to win. They want us to win. We know it's a region game and after losing to Cairo we can't lose another region game.''
Westover lost four starters from last year, but junior Daquan Green has emerged as a big-time player and Harrell is one of the most improved players in Albany, a force inside who will face his biggest test tonight.
Brandon Hudson has not only worked his way into the starting lineup, but he has given Westover a scoring threat that was missing earlier in the year, and the Patriots just seem to get better as the season goes along.
Then there's Sapp, the Tornado killer.
"I know I have to play my best when we play Monroe,'' Sapp said. "It feels like a championship game every time we play them. People I don't even know come up to me and talk to me about the Monroe game.
"It's just like last year, all the hype, all the excitement. You just have to stay focused and ignore all of that. It's not hard to do that when you want to win. I've been playing basketball since I was a little kid, and this is the best'.'