Monroe’s Jabari McGhee and his teammates are gearing up for a big early season matchup tonight against Crisp County — the team that ended the Tornadoes’ unbeaten region record last year in the title game. Monroe enters the game unbeaten at 5-0 and ranked No. 1 in The Herald’s Fab 5 Poll. (email@example.com)
ALBANY — Too early for a big game?
Don’t tell that to the kids at Monroe and Crisp County, where the two powers meet in a pair of games tonight that will define the front-runners in the Region 1-AAAA races.
No one is hotter than Monroe’s teams. Both the boys and girls are unbeaten and ranked atop The Herald’s Fab 5 polls that came out earlier this week.
But this is Crisp County.
The Crisp girls, led by 6-foot-2 Nasheema Oliver, are unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in the Fab 5 Poll, and the Crisp boys are 2-1 but hold a mental edge over Monroe — because it was the Cougars who beat Monroe in the region title game last year.
“The guys know,’’ Monroe boys coach Marquis Davis said at practice Thursday. “Last year, Crisp beat us for the region title. I think we have enough guys here who remember that. Crisp is always a real tough team.’’
But no one is playing better right now than Monroe, which brought back Herald Super 6er Jabari McGhee, a 6-7 forward who averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds a year ago and is coming off a 33-point night Tuesday in an overtime victory against Albany High.
“They’ve got Jabari, the all-state Mr. Everything player,’’ Crisp County coach Terry Smith said after practice Thursday. “They’ve got a great team. It’s a tall task for us. Our kids remember that we beat them for the region title. They know. We’ve got three kids back from that team and only one starter. But they know. The Monroe kids know we beat them for the region title (too), and I’m sure they will be up for the game.’’
Davis said his kids better be up.
“We’ve got to get pumped up for it,’’ he said. “Because it’s (also) a region game.’’
Monroe (5-0) has played five games, and four of them have been region games. But the next seven days will be a real test for the Tornadoes.
They face Crisp in a huge region game tonight, and then go head-to-head with region and city rival Westover next Friday at Monroe. Westover is ranked No. 2 in The Herald’s Fab 5 Poll.
Davis said his kids are off to such a fast start because everyone is chipping in and doing everything on the court. It’s not just McGhee, who is the only starter back. It’s a long list of players that has stepped up early to redefine the Tornadoes.
“We’ve just been getting a better team effort,’’ Davis said. “Before, we would always have one or two players. We’ve had some highlight guys over the past two-to-three years getting the points and the rebounds. This year we have a lot of guys contributing in a lot of ways.’’
And finding ways to win.
“We’re quicker, especially our guards,’’ Davis said. “We lost a lot of bulk when we lost Rantavious (Gilbert, who graduated), but Tim White (a 6-5 junior) has really stepped up for us. He’s averaging seven-to-eight rebounds and two blocks a game.’’
McGhee said no one cares where the points come from and that it’s just good to win — and it’s even better to win as a team.
Crisp brought back one starter, Javoris Cook, who is averaging 15 points a game, but the Cougars have found another weapon in junior Davion Harvey, who is coming off a 16-point night in a 48-35 win against Dougherty on Tuesday.
“It’s always a good game when we play Monroe,’ Smith said. “They have a great team, but I think our kids will be up for the challenge. It will be a war.’’
The girls game might even be bigger.
It appears that Monroe and Crisp are the clear favorites in the region race, and both programs have aspirations of going deep in the playoffs. Crisp went to the Final Four two years ago and made it to the second round of the playoffs last year, and Monroe drove to the Elite 8 before losing to Washington County, which was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state at the time.
But this year’s Monroe team is younger and faster — and working overtime.
“The reason we’re 6-0 is my coaches have put in double duty and extra duty to make sure the young ladies are prepared for the games,’’ Monroe head girls coach Cheryl Cheeks said Thursday.
Key Key Price, who was a vital part of last year’s team as a freshman, is back along with Davone Anduze, and the Lady Tornadoes have a lot of talented young players. Two freshmen have already made a statement in the early going. Jomekia Morine, a talented point guard who is averaging 14 points a game, and Cekaya Mack, a 6-1 center who is averaging 11 rebounds a night, have stepped in to help make a difference.
“Their additions have helped us advance our game,’’ Cheeks said of the two freshmen. “And Key Key has played well, and Duze’s defensive play has been great for us. Everybody is putting in the effort. We’re practicing long hours and playing hard.’’
Still, this is Crisp, and the Lady Cougars beat Monroe last year in the region semifinals before going on to win the region title, and two years ago Crisp knocked Monroe out of the region tournament in a play-in game.
Oliver was the difference in both of those games, and she’s back. Oliver has scored 38 points and grabbed 29 rebounds in her last two games.
“I don’t know if there is an answer for her,’’ Cheeks said. “She’s going to get hers, but we have to try to limit her, play tough defense inside. And when she misses, we’ve got to get the ball and go.’’
That’s what Monroe does best.
“Monroe’s a very talented team,’’ said first-year Lady Cougars coach Barrett Wilkes, who was an assistant at Crisp the last two years. “I know they will play a real high up-tempo game and try to pressure us into making mistakes. There’s no question about it.’’
Crisp returns three starters, including guards Kayla Green and Qwenisha Waters, who is the only senior starter.
Wilkes knows it’s early for a big game, but he likes it.
“I like opening up playing region games at the beginning of the year,’’ said Wilkes, whose team is 3-0 with all three wins coming against Region 1-AAAA teams. “I like it because it means so much. It’s competitive. I want to play competitive basketball all year.’’
He also knows it’s a showdown between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in The Herald’s Fab 5 Poll.
“It’s really an honor to be ranked up there that high,’’ he said. “It shows what the girls have done in the previous season. It’ll be a good game. We’re excited.”
The Monroe-Crisp matchup isn’t the only showdown this weekend. There is a huge doubleheader in Camilla, where Mitchell and Calhoun face each other.
Mitchell’s Eagles beat Calhoun for the Region 1-A boys title last year, and the Mitchell girls, who return both A’Miracle Jones and Shonbreka Holton — they combined for more than 30 rebounds a game last year — also won the region title.
Both Mitchell teams advanced to the Elite 8 round of the state playoffs. But both lost to region rival Randolph-Clay last Saturday, so tonight’s game will be a good measuring stick for the Region 1-A race, which is split into north and south zones.
Calhoun’s girls, led by Brandi Buie, have won four in a row and appear to be the favorites in the north zone along with Randolph-Clay.
There is also a big game tonight in Bainbridge, where the Bearcats and Lady Bearcats play their second game against Tift County, which might be the best Class AAAAAA team in Georgia. Tift beat Monroe in a scrimmage, and Westover in a regular-season game and is 2-0.
And there is one last huge doubleheader Saturday night in Dawson, where Westover’s Lady Patriots and Patriots meet Terrell County in a pair of games that always brings a standing-room-only crowd to the Terrell County gym, where the Greenwave have one of the best basketball traditions in this part of the state.