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GHSA BOYS STATE TOURNAMENT, SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Westover boys 1 win from Elite 8

Herald Super 6er Dequan Green, right, has been both hot and cold at times this season, but Westover needs him to heat up big time if the Patriots are to have a shot at knocking off state No. 4 Drew in the GHSA Class AAA Sweet 16 round of the playoffs tonight. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Herald Super 6er Dequan Green, right, has been both hot and cold at times this season, but Westover needs him to heat up big time if the Patriots are to have a shot at knocking off state No. 4 Drew in the GHSA Class AAA Sweet 16 round of the playoffs tonight. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — It’s a simple idea, and it’s one they believe in at Westover High.

“It’s playoff time, and that means it’s Westover’s time,’’ said Westover boys coach Dallis Smith, who believes this year’s team is good enough to make a run at the Class AAA state title.

The Patriots played for the state title three years ago and went to the Final Four two years ago. That’s why when they lost in the first round last year, it was a shock to the kids and the program.

They took care of that last week, rolling past Westside, Macon, 77-63, to win their first-round game of the Class AAA state playoffs on the road.

Southwest Georgia’s boys and girls Sweet 16 schedules

TODAY

Boys

Region 1-AAA, No. 3 Westover at Region 4-AAA, No. 1 Drew, 6 p.m

Region 3-AA, No. 2 Bleckley at Region 1-AA, No. 1 ALBANY, 6 p.m.

REGION 1-AA, NO. 3 eARLY COUNTY at Region 4-AA, No. 1 Morgan County, 6 p.m.

REGION 1-AAAA, No. 2 Bainbridge at Region 3-AAAA, No. 1 Alcovy, 6 p.m.

Region 3-A, No. 2 Claxton at Region 1-A No. 1 Mitchell County, 6:30 p.m.

Region 3-AAA, No. 2 Westside, Augusta No. 2 at Region 1-AAA No. 1 Crisp, 7:30 p.m.

Girls

Region 3-A, No. 2 Claxton at Region 1-A No. 1 Mitchell County, 5 p.m.

Region 3-AAA, No. 2 Westside, Augusta No. 2 at Region 1-AAA No. 1 Crisp, 6 p.m

“We didn’t want to go home like we did last year,’’ said Brandon Hudson, a senior, who remembers the run to the Final Four when he was a sophomore. “We knew we had to come out with more focus and play as a team. We just have to play hard and keep it in our heads that we belong here.’’

That’s always the message at Westover, which has a deep, rich basketball tradition. The fact this year’s Patriots are a No. 3 seed coming out of Region 1-AAA doesn’t matter now.

It just means two difficult road trips. They took care of Westside last week and will try to make a big step tonight against one of the top Class AAA teams in the state when they travel to face Drew at 6 p.m. in the Sweet 16 round of the state playoffs.

Drew is ranked No. 4 in the Class AAA state poll and just beat Washington County, which was the No. 10 team in the state, 73-47, in the opening round last week. Drew is 25-4 and beat Eagles Landing for the Region 4-AAA title, 54-49. Eagles Landing was ranked No. 2 in the state before Drew pulled the upset.

“They’re (6-foot-4), 6-5 and very athletic,’’ Smith said of Drew. “They play good defense, and they play physical, and we will be going into their gym, facing a hostile environment. It’s a tough situation.’’

Still, Smith knows what it takes to upset powers from the Atlanta area, and last week’s first-round win boosted his team’s confidence. Westover (17-8) raced out to a 20-point lead and took the home crowd out of the game, then walked away feeling good about what was ahead.

“We came out of that game with a little swagger,’’ Smith said. “The team we’re playing (tonight) has a lot of swagger. They play with a lot of confidence. They’re No. 4 in the state and they’ve got nine seniors. We have to be smart and run our offense, and we’ve got to play physical. It’s playoff time, and we say that’s Westover time, and our kids feel that way. We’ve gotten (to the Sweet 16), and this is a game that can put you over the top.’’

The Patriots have been led all season by guard T.J. Cromer, who not only leads the Pats in scoring but has grown into a floor leader. Hudson and Herald Super 6er Dequan Green have also had big moments, and Smith thinks every player he has will need to play at his best tonight.

“We have to stand tall in this game,’’ Smith said. “At this point in the state tournament you know where you want to go, and you know you are going to have to beat somebody who is real good to get there,” he said.

If Westover wins, the Patriots would face the winner of the Henry County-Howard game in the Elite 8 in Milledgeville on Saturday.

ALBANY HIGH IS RIGHT WHERE IT WANTS TO BE: This is where it ended a year ago — in the not-so-Sweet 16 — for the Albany Indians, who came back this season and put together the best record in school history on their way to the playoffs.

They even looked invincible during a 100-75 opening-round win against Appling County, but tonight is a big step — the biggest in years — for the Indians, who need to beat Bleckley County to reach the Elite 8 for the first time in a long time.

“It’s been six or seven years,’’ said Albany High coach Archie Chatmon, whose Indians host Bleckley at 6 p.m. today in the Albany High gym in the Class AA Sweet 16 round of the state playoffs. “This is the next step. We talked about getting past this point (earlier in the season). We’ve had little goals along the way that we have been able to accomplish. This is a big round. We wanted to get here.’’

Chatmon felt the loss to Lamar County last year in the Sweet 16 round of the Class AA playoffs had as much to do with playing on the road as anything, and he stressed to his kids the importance of winning the Region 1-AA title to secure home court in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

They did, grinding out two tough wins in the region tournament, beating Cook, 36-34, and hanging on to win the rubber match with three-time defending region champ Thomasville, 44-39, to win their first region title since 2005. Then they jumped out to an 18-0 lead and rolled past Appling County last Saturday in a game that was never in doubt from the opening tip.

“We need that same kind of start (tonight),’’ Chatmon said. “I don’t know about the score, but we need to start with that same kind of energy. Being at home, the visiting team has a little doubt in their mind because it’s unfamiliar, and we need a fast start. It’s just like against Appling County, we want to pressure on them early.’’

Chatmon said the matchups won’t be easy for his kids because Bleckley is a free-wheeling team that likes to spread the court and fire away.

“They shoot it,’’ the coach said. “All of them like to shoot and they’ve got a guard (Marcus Mack) who reminds me of Early’s Ladonis Yarbrough. He can shoot the 3. We definitely can’t give him good looks. They like to spread you out and get the open shots, and we may have to adjust with our big guys. They could give us matchup problems.’’

Bleckley (20-10) is the No. 2 seed from Region 3-AA, and reached the second round by beating Northeast, Macon, 56-53, last week. The Royals lost in their region title game, falling to Laney, 59-49.

Laney is ranked No. 4 in the state, right behind Albany, which moved up to No. 3 two weeks ago. The Indians (24-2) finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in The Herald’s Fab 5 Poll and carry a 14-game winning streak into tonight’s game. They have also won 18 of their last 19.

A win tonight would send Albany to the Elite 8 in Savannah, where the Indians would meet the winner of the Vidalia-Dodge County game Saturday night at Savannah State.

EARLY HAS A LONG ROAD — AGAIN: Early County found the formula last week when the Bobcats had a 4½-hour trip to play Long County in the first round of the Class AA state playoffs, and they’re doing the same thing for their second-round game in Madison against Morgan County tonight.

The plan was just like last week — leave Blakely the day before the game and spend the night in a hotel to get ready for the 6 p.m. Sweet 16 game.

“You can’t go 4½ hours in a bus and then try to play,’’ Early County coach Randy Isom said. “We wouldn’t have any legs when we walked onto the court. By the time we got our legs we would be down 10 points — maybe 30 points.’’

Early lives and dies on its legs, because the Bobcats love to run, and that’s why Isom wants to be sure his kids are rested before facing Morgan County, the No. 1 seed from Region 4. Morgan County has won 13 in a row and hasn’t lost since falling to state-ranked Laney, 63-50, on Jan. 16. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 6 in the Class AA state poll.

“They start four guards and they like to shoot from the perimeter,’’ Isom said of his scouting report on Morgan. “And they have a 6-8 kid they go to inside. They (also) shoot a lot of 3s.’’

Early County starts four guards and Jacori Taylor, a 6-2 post who has played three games since returning from a knee injury. Isom, however, isn’t worried about the mismatch inside.

“We’re battle-tested,’’ he said. “We go against Thomasville and Willie Clayton is 6-8 and Greg Wimberly is 6-6. And we go against Albany, which runs one of the best offenses anywhere. It’s all about showing up, performing, doing your job and not backing off. If we do what we do, they are going to have some problems. I’m sure they haven’t seen anybody like us. We’re pretty quick. They’ve got two quick guards, and we have four quick guards. I’m hoping our guard play picks up in this game. We just have to be ready to play our game.’’

Early County (23-6) hasn’t been to the Elite 8 since 2006, but Isom has said all season that this year’s team is the best he has had since then, and hopes his kids — who are led by Darontay McCoy and Yarbrough — make a little history at Early County and make a run at the state title.

He also knows the 4½-hour ride home will feel a lot better if his kids win tonight.

“If we win, we’ll be back in Blakely in no time,’’ he said with a laugh.

If the Bobcats — who finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in The Herald’s Fab 5 Poll — win, they will face the winner of the Thomasville-Laney game Saturday night in the Elite 8 round in Savannah.

BAINBRIDGE FACING TOUGHEST DRAW IN STATE?: Who filled out the Class AAAA brackets? Because they didn’t do the Bainbridge Bearcats any favors.

Bainbridge had to open the state tournament last week against Effingham County, which was ranked No. 7 in the Class AAAA poll, and they have to travel to face the state’s No. 2-ranked team tonight when they meet No. 1 seed Alcovy at 6 p.m. in the Sweet 16 round of the Class AAAA state playoffs.

And what makes it worse is Bainbridge felt it should have been the No. 1 seed coming out of Region 1-AAAA instead of the No. 2 seed.

The Bearcats saw their 17-game winning streak snapped in the region title game when Northside, Warner Robins scored the winning basket after it was clear that time had expired, Bainbridge coach Rickey McCullough said this week.

“We had the ball with about two or three seconds left in the game, and they made a steal at our 3-point line, and when the guy was driving to the basket on the other end, the buzzer went off when he was at the free throw line. He kept dribbling and made a layup,’’ McCullough said Tuesday, recounting the controversial finish that still has Bearcat fans steaming. “I was getting ready for overtime, but the officials ran off the court. They said the game was over.’’

That’s why Bainbridge (23-5) is on the road tonight, traveling to the outskirts of Atlanta to play a Alcovy team (26-3) that won the Region 3-AAAA title and carries its own 17-game winning streak into tonight’s game.

“It’s up there around the Atlanta airport,’’ McCullough said. “They’re a lot like us. Their posts are really wings, about 6-5 like we are. They’ve got a guard (Devon Edwards) who is going to Duke on a football scholarship and who plans to try to walk on there. They’re going to try to press you the whole game.’’

Bainbridge has been here before. The Bearcats made back-to-back trips to the Final Four before losing in the second round last year to Lovejoy last year, and McCullough believes it makes a difference.

“I think the teams that get here a lot do have an advantage,’’ he said. “Effingham County hadn’t been in the playoffs.’’

Alcovy lost to TCC in the first round last year and didn’t make the playoffs two years ago. And Bainbridge is tough to prepare for because the Bearcats are incredibly balanced. They have four players who average double figures: Paul Chukes (14.3), Rodney Glenn (11.4), Dontavius Marshall (11.3) and Trea Kelly (10.2).

“We’ve got four guys who are capable of scoring 20 points on any given night,’’ McCullough said. “They don’t score 20 every night, but they are capable of it.’’

That region final fiasco that gave Northside, Warner Robins the title didn’t end well in the playoffs for Northside.

“The way it worked out, Effingham County beat Liberty County (43-40) in the third-place game in their region, and then Liberty County (the No. 4 seed) beat (No. 1 seed) Northside, Warner Robins by 17 (75-58) in the first round of the tournament,’’ McCullough said. “So you never know …”

If Bainbridge wins, the Bearcats will face the winner of the North Clayton-Ware County game Saturday at Fort Valley State in the Class AAAA Elite 8.

DOUBLEHEADERS FOR TOP SEEDS AT MITCHELL AND CRISP: Mitchell County and Crisp County will both hold doubleheaders tonight because the girls and boys teams from both schools won region titles.

Mitchell, which won the girls and boys Region 1-A titles, has a doubleheader against Claxton. The girls game begins at 5 p.m., and the boys play Claxton at 6:30 p.m.

Crisp County, which swept the Region 1-AAA titles, hosts girls and boys teams from Westside, Augusta. The girls tip off at 6 p.m., followed by the boys game at 7:30 p.m.