Westover Super 6er Kel Miller, right, drives past Monroe's Hakeem Porter during Friday's fourth meeting between the two rivals. After Monroe won the first three meetings in the regular season, the Patriots broke through and finally won, 67-65. (email@example.com)
ALBANY — It’s that time of year -- the time when nothing counts but right now.
Just ask Westover’s high-flying Patriots, who soared past their biggest rivals in the biggest game of the season Friday night, beating Herald No. 1 Monroe, 67-65, to win the Region 1-AAAA title in a packed Monroe gym, where Westover’s T.J. Cromer might as well call it his home away from home.
Cromer scored 50 points in two nights in the belly of the Tornado, including 27 on Friday night to lift Westover past Monroe — which had beaten the Patriots three times during the regular season — and into next week's playoffs as the No. 1 seed. That means the Patriots will have the chance to play their first three playoff games in the Boston Garden.
"Revenge is the sweetest joy,'' said Cromer, a Herald Super 6er who leaped to the heavens at the end of the game and danced and hugged his teammates as they celebrated on the Monroe floor. "Those three losses didn't matter. We had to get this one.''
Maybe it's all the Willie Boston tradition, or maybe it’s just the deep, rich blood that runs through the veins of the best basketball rivalry in Southwest Georgia, but when Westover and Monroe play, it’s always special.
This was especially significant for Westover.
"When the horn sounded I just sat down. I just sat down and let it soak in. It was such a good feeling because of all the stuff we had to go through to get here,'' said Westover coach Dallis Smith, who watched Monroe guard Darrien Anderson's 3-pointer hit the front of the rim and skip away in the final seconds to end the game.
This one meant even more to the kids from Westover, who had lost to Monroe three times and had been hearing the critics from both sides of town.
"We heard the naysayers,'' Smith said. "There were critics. The kids heard from them this year. Westover people get a little spoiled because we win every year. And this means a lot because all year we've fighting to get better. We've been up and down.
"I'm proud of the kids because of the effort they have put in the last three or four weeks. We've been playing our best basketball, and this is the time of year you want to start playing your best.''
Monroe owned the regular season, but Westover owned the title game,
Monroe (21-5) became to first team in the history of The Herald’s Fab 5 Poll to go wire to wire as the No. 1 team, thanks -- in part --- to the Tornadoes' dominance against Westover, which started the season ranked No. 2 in the poll and finished at No. 2.
The Nadas, who went 14-0 in the region, beat Westover twice in the region and once for the U Save It Tournament title at Christmas and had clearly been the top team in Southwest Georgia.
But the fourth game belonged to the Patriots (20-5), who have lost to only two teams all season — Monroe and nationally-ranked Class AAAAAA Tift County, the No. 1 team in Georgia. But Westover would rather beat its biggest rival more than anyone, and it showed Friday.
"Westover wanted it a little more than we did this time,'' Monroe coach Marquis Davis said. "They wanted it, and their guard play was a little better — Cromer was the difference. He was the difference in the game.''
Cromer said all the Patriots stepped up to win the title.
"The difference in the game was we had more heart,'' Cromer said. "Everyone was against us, even our own blood — even the ones at our school. People in our school were against us because we had lost to them three times.''
Westover seemed to take all those negatives and turn them into a giant chip on its shoulder, which came flying off early. Westover led for almost the entire game and took a 14-point lead into the fourth quarter only to watch Monroe storm back with a 20-2 run that lifted the Tornadoes to 59-55 lead with 3:40 left.
Herald Super 6er Jabari McGhee, who averaged 28 points a game in Monroe's first three wins against the Patriots, started the second half with a signature dunk and just took over, driving relentlessly to keep Monroe in the game.
McGhee scored 17 of his 27 points in the second half, including nine during the 20-2 run that included a rare 3-pointer from the 6-foot-7 power forward. His 3-pointer closed the gap to 55-49, and Cortez Banks, who came off the bench, came through with an and-one play to make it a 55-52 game before Keith Bowens hit a 3 to knot things at 55-55. McGhee would then hit a 12-footer and come right back with a drive in traffic to make it 59-55 to complete a 12-0 run.
Westover shook off the uppercut and Cromer and Kel Miller, another Super 6er, combined to hit five free throws in a row to lift Westover back to a 60-59 lead. McGhee answered with a dramatic drive in traffic, and when Westover missed at the other end, McGhee had a coast-to-coast drive to give Monroe a 63-60 edge. But Miller, who finished with 13 points, hit a long 3 to knot it at 63 with 2:36 left.
Both teams took some time off the clock until there was 1:12 left. That's when Kahil Carson, a power forward who had come off the bench, launched a 3 from deep in the left corner.
"When he shot the 3, I said, 'Oh no! ... Good!' " said Smith, who didn't want that shot with the game on the line.
"It looked good,'' said Carson, who finished the game with those lone three points. "That's all I know. It was good!''
Carson's trey gave Westover a 66-63 lead, but Anderson, who finished with 15 points, made a pair of free throws to close to 66-65 with 47.6 seconds left in the game. Westover turned the ball over via a 10-second violation to give Monroe a chance to win it with a final shot, but Smith lobbied that 10 seconds had not ticked off and that it also takes a second to put the ball in bounds.
The referees checked with the official scorer and overruled their own call, giving the ball back to Westover with 47.2 seconds left. Freshman Mike Green missed a free throw but made his second one with 21 seconds left to give the Patriots a 67-65 lead.
"After I missed the first free throw, T.J. and the other guys came up to me and told me to just relax and I made the second one,'' Green said.
Monroe called time out with 14.6 seconds left, but Anderson's shot hit the front of the rim in the final seconds and the ball skipped away — along with the game. Davis said later he didn't want a 3-pointer.
"We had six seconds (when he shot the ball),'' Davis said. "You have to get something going to the basket.''
Davis gave Westover credit for playing a game with a lot of intensity, and said the difference at the end of the night was Monroe's inability to match Westover and falling behind by 14 after three quarters.
"We waited too long to play,'' he said. "That's the bottom line.''