Today at Georgia College & State in Milledgeville, Mitchell County’s Kendra Frazier, right, and the Lady Eagles will take on Charlton County in the GHSA Class A Elite 8 round of the state tournament, while Pelham’s Briunna Freeman, left, and the Lady Hornets will square off against Taylor County just two weeks after the two teams battled each other for the Region 1-A title. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CAMILLA —Is there a better story in the girls Class A state playoffs than Mitchell County’s Lady Eagles?
Here they are, flying into the Elite 8 today to face Charlton County at 7 p.m. at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, a step away from the Final Four.
They were 12-12 and actually had to play their way into the final four of the Region 1-A tournament. They weren’t even one of the top seeds in the region, but beat Quitman (56-41) just to reach the region semifinals. And once they got there, no one has been able to stop them — or even slow them down.
They’ve not only won five in row, but they routed Randolph-Clay, the top seed in the northern half of Region 1-A, 53-35, and then met their biggest nemesis, Pelham, in the region title game.
Pelham had already beaten Mitchell twice, by 22 points and 18 points, but not this team. The Lady Eagles played tough down the stretch and beat the rival Lady Hornets, 54-48.
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WHO/WHEN: All games today — Pelham girls vs. Taylor County, 4 p.m.; Mitchell County girls vs. Charlton County, 7 p.m.; Mitchell County boys vs. Lanier, 8:30 p.m.
WHERE: Georgia College & State University, Milledgeville.
LIVE UPDATES: Go to twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports
They ripped Echols County, 63-37, in the opening round of the playoffs and took care of Claxton, 69-59, on Saturday and suddenly look good enough to just keep it going.
“We are going into the game to do our best and play as a team,’’ Mitchell County coach Rosemary Sanders said. “We know it’s hard work first. We need to do what we do and hopefully that will be enough.’’
What the Lady Eagles do better than anyone is sweep the boards. Shonbreka Holton and A’Miracle Jones, two tough-nosed sophomores, hit the glass as well as anyone in this part of the state. Holton is coming off a 26-rebound game against Claxton, while Jones led the team with 18 points and also grabbed 19 rebounds. That’s 45 rebounds from the Queens of the Boards.
They averaged 15 rebounds apiece during the regular season, but both are averaging more than 20 since the Pelham game, and those second and third shots are giving Mitchell County an edge inside every night.
The amazing thing is that Jones stands about 5-foot-6 and Holton is only about 5-8, and yet they know how to box out and play tough inside.
The Lady Eagles will need an edge and a way to stop Courtney Williams, a 5-10 senior who is the key to Charlton’s offense. She’s coming off a 48-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist night in Charlton’s 85-82 overtime win against Dooly County in the Sweet 16 round Tuesday. Williams also had five blocks in the win.
“She does everything for them,’’ Sanders said Thursday. “And everything revolves around her. She can hit 3s and she drives on you, but she’s not selfish. She gets the ball to the player who is open. She sees the floor well.’’
Charlton (23-4) hasn’t lost to a Class A team this season, falling to three Class AAAA teams and a team from Florida. The Lady Indians have two recent wins against common opponents of Mitchell’s. They beat Echols County, 51-47, in a game during which Williams scored 31 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, and they also beat Mitchell’s region rival Seminole County, 44-32. Williams scored 21 and grabbed 15 rebounds in that win.
Mitchell County reached the Elite 8 two years ago when Tiona Burley, a 6-1 post, led the Lady Eagles before earning a scholarship to UNC-Charlotte. Sanders said this year’s team is completely different.
“There’s really no comparison,’’ she said. “This team is younger but more experienced. They have played together since they were 10 years old. And right now we have a lot of balance. The guards have been playing real well.
“They rebound. They crash the boards. They are physically tough and mentally tough.’’
So is Mitchell County.
MITCHELL’S EAGLES FACE STATE-RANKED LANIER COUNTY: They already had two school buses Thursday ready to head for Milledgeville for tonight’s Elite 8 round of the Class A state playoffs at Georgia College and State University, where Mitchell County’s girls play at 7 and the boys play at 8:30 p.m.
So Mitchell County added a bus for spectators — and that sold out in less than an hour.
“Fans are calling me wanting to know how they can get on that bus, but I have nothing to do with it,’’ Mitchell County assistant boys coach Deroux Woumnm said. “They started selling tickets when school opened on Thursday morning, and in less than an hour the bus was sold out.’’
Woumnm knows his kids will have plenty of support — and he knows they will need it against Lanier County’s big, fast and physical team, which is a group that has felt it should have won the state title the last two seasons. The Bulldogs (25-4) are ranked No. 5 in the Class A state poll, and some feel they might just have the most talented Class A team in Georgia.
“They’re expecting to be a Final Four team. They’re expecting to be the state champs,’’ Woumnm said of Lanier. “It’s a tough draw — one of the toughest. But I believe without a shadow of a doubt that my kids will play hard.’’
No one has to tell Woumnm anything about Lanier.
“I remember these kids when they were in the eighth grade,’’ he said. “They run the floor and they are relentless on the boards. We’re hoping we can use their aggressiveness to our advantage and get some of those big boys in foul trouble and get them out of the game for a minute, because as long as they are on the floor they can run you out of the gym. They play the game the way the game is supposed to be played.’’
But Mitchell can run, too. The Eagles come at teams with eight and nine players who all hit the court running and firing, and make teams pay. It could be an RPM showdown.
“It’s going to be a track meet,’’ Woumnm said. “If we can match their intensity, we can stay with them. It’s going to take heart and the will to win, and that’s what I’ve been preaching to my kids. I know they will play hard.’’
Mitchell County (20-9) will be without Jermain Hartsfield, a 6-3 forward who averages a double-double who is out with an ankle injury, but the Eagles have stepped up all season and have a variety of heroes stepping in the lead the way.
Guard Stacey Butler and forward Diquan Isom are the leaders, but Woumnm said he got a big lift in Saturday’s Sweet 16 win against Claxton from Joquil Chester, a 5-7 guard who came off the bench to hit some big 3s as Mitchell came back to win, 52-48. Bruce Bryant is another impact player from the bench who adds to Mitchell’s magic — and there might not be another word for what the Eagles do when they are off and running.
It’s a close-knit group that has emerged down the stretch, a group that has shared the ball and the ride all the way to the Elite 8. It’s the first trip this deep in state for Mitchell since 2003, and the Eagles have embraced the moment and each other to get this far — and now only Lanier stands in the way of a trip to the Final Four.
But it is Lanier, a team that has been led by 6-6 Junior Gnonkonde and 6-4 Emmanuel Ezoua, a pair of physical and talented inside players who can dominate the boards and the game.
Lanier has won 72 games over the past two seasons and was knocked out of the playoffs last year by Terrell County, which went on to play for the state title. Lanier has won two playoff games, beating Pelham and Hawkinsville by identical 58-39 scores to reach the Elite 8.
Mitchell, which exploded past Calhoun County with a 44-11 first half en route to a 69-44 Region 1-A title win, has beaten Atkinson County, 72-52, and Claxton to get here.
The Eagles have run all the way to the Elite 8, and plan on running tonight.
“If we lose, it won’t be because we’re not prepared,’’ Woumnm said. “It won’t be because we didn’t work hard. They are going to have to match our intensity. We’re going to come with it.’’
PELHAM READY TO POUNCE: A funny thing happened right after Pelham’s girls beat Greenville, 61-24, on Tuesday night in the Sweet 16 round of the Class A state playoffs.
“After the game, nobody asked me how many points they scored,’’ Pelham coach Antonio Tookes said. “That’s unusual.’’
Tookes’ kids were full of questions — well at least one.
“They didn’t ask about how points they scored. They all asked me how many points did No. 4 (Mykeshia Darden) scored for Greenville,’’ Tookes said.
That’s all you need to know about the Pelham girls, who took so much pride in their defense in their Sweet 16 win that no one cared what they scored.
What they cared about was stopping Darden, who had scored 37 in the opening round of the playoffs.
That’s the attitude they’re taking with them today to Milledgeville, where the Lady Hornets meet state-ranked Taylor at 4 p.m. in the Elite 8 round of the Class A state playoffs at Georgia College and State University.
They’ll need it.
“When you get here every team you play is a real good team,’’ Tookes said Thursday. “We’ve got to play defense, defense, defense. That’s what I’ve been telling them all week.
“Taylor is tough. I watched the film on them and all their players look good — not one or two, but all of them. Everyone is good when you get to this point, and everyone has the same goal — to get to the Final Four.’’
Pelham hasn’t been to the Elite 8 since 1997, and today is a huge step, because Taylor is 25-1 and riding an 18-game wining streak into today’s game. The Lady Vikings haven’t lost since Class AAA Rutland beat them, 44-42, on Dec. 22, and they are ranked No. 5 in the Class A state poll.
Pelham is ranked No. 10 with a 26-4 record, and would be even higher except the Lady Hornets, who had beaten county rival Mitchell County by 18 and 22 points in the regular season, fell to Mitchell in the Region 1-A title game, 54-48.
But Pelham has bounced back — and bounced back in a big way after that loss, beating Turner County, 53-42, in the opening round of the playoffs before ripping Greenville on Tuesday.
“We’ve put that behind us,’’ Pelham freshman Briunna Freeman said after the Greenville game, echoing the feelings of every player on the team.
Tookes believes her kids.
“They were able to put it behind them. They said they weren’t going to worry about what happened and just look to the future,’’ Tookes said. “We can‘t look back at that game. We can’t change it. Thank God, it was motivation.’’
It sure appeared that way. Pelham had its best season last year in more than a decade after Tookes took over the program, but after winning the Region 1-A title, the Lady Hornets were upset in the first round of the playoffs. It was a bitter loss and stayed with Tookes and her returning players, who had to bounce back from the loss to Mitchell and open the playoffs.
“We really wanted to get past that first-round win,’’ Tookes said. “They know how it feels to lose in the first round, so that was a big win. They played with a lot of emotion.’’
Then they played one of their best games of the year against Greenville, which had knocked off Calvary Day, the No. 3 team in the state poll and No. 1 seed from its region, in the opening round.
“I could see when they left the locker room they were ready,’’ Tookes said. “They had that fire in their eye. We played defense, and we got most of our points off our defense. And nobody cared how many points they scored. When you’ve got that, you’ve got something good.’’
By the way, Darden didn’t score much against Pelham, which saw Freeman score 19, Super 6er Shay Reese score 18 and Octavia Kierce drop in 21 against Greenville.
Just for the record, Kierce let everyone know just what Darden scored. After the game, she held up four fingers and smiled a bit.
If Pelham knocks off Taylor today, Kierce might be holding up four fingers that point to Macon and next week’s Final Four.