CUTHBERT — You gotta believe!
That’s what every team left in the state basketball tournament is saying these days, but when Mitchell County interim girls coach Wendy Whitlock says it, the words almost take on new meaning.
Her team faces Herald No. 1 Randolph-Clay tonight in the Class A Elite 8, just 10 days after getting blown out in the Region 1-A title game, 73-46, by the Lady Red Devils, who are the top-ranked Class A girls team in Georgia.
“I believe we can win,’’ said Whitlock after practice on Monday. “I truly believe it. I just have to get my girls to believe it. The biggest mountain we face is making them believe they can win the game. The key for us is making them believe they can win.’’
Mitchell is the No. 9 seed in the state under the new format, which ranked all the teams in Class A and took only the top 16 teams to the postseason. Under the old format — and the one they use in all the other classes — the only way the first- and second-place teams from the same region could meet in the state tournament was in the state title game.
But Mitchell has to face R-C in the Elite 8 with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Whitlock says that it doesn’t matter.
“I watch the NCAA’s every year and someone is always complaining about the bracket,’’ she said. “We are just going to play the hand we were dealt, and do our best to win the game.”
Whitlock also believes the state title will be decided at the Joe Williams Gym, where the two powers meet at 6 p.m. today.
“I think the winner of this game will win the state championship,’’ Whitlock said.
That has been the plan at Randolph-Clay since Day 1, and the Lady Red Devils lost that day. They have lost just once since, winning 27-of-their last 28 games. They haven’t lost a game this calendar year, and the plan is to finish out the season with a state crown.
The Lady Red Devils beat Mitchell twice, handing the Lady Eagles a 66-45 loss in Camilla on Dec. 1 and romping in the region title game, which was played at Randolph-Clay.
The kids at Randolph-Clay said they were motivated to make a point in the region tittle game because they heard comments from Mitchell about how R-C was “overrated.”
After losing in the title game, Mitchell is now the team with the added motivation, and Whitlock believes that might help lift her kids to a win tonight.
“I don’t blame her for saying the things she is saying,’’ R-C coach Jennifer Acree said. “She is doing what a coach should do. She’s trying to get her team motivated to win the game.’’
There may or may not still be some fuel left for the Randolph-Clay kids, who were pretty upset before the title game, and talked about it afterward.
“We didn’t like their comments,’’ Adriana Blackmon, the senior point guard and heart of the Randolph-Clay team, said after the win. “They said we were overrated. That made me mad. I didn’t like it. We had to make a statement. We had to show them up on the court.’’
Now the statement is a ticket to the Final Four on Friday at Fort Valley State.
“That’s what we are thinking about now,’’ Acree said. “We want to get to the Final Four, and Mitchell County is the team that is standing in our way.’’
Whenekia Washington led R-C with 24 points, hitting seven 3s, including six of them in the first half in the region title game, and you can bet Mitchell will try to stop her tonight.
“We have been practicing hard ever since we lost that game,’’ Whitlock said. “We want to do some things differently.’’
Acree said Washington wouldn’t have to have another monster game, because her team has so many weapons. Whenekia’s twin sister, Kanekia, scored 16 that night and R-C got another solid all-around game from Blackmon, who runs the team as the point guard. R-C’s Thornton Towers — 6-1 Kobi and 6-foot Brianna Thornton, who rule the paint — made life tough on Mitchell inside, and the Lady Eagles shot just 19.5 percent over the first three quarters. Backups played a six-minute fourth quarter.
“If they stop Whenekia, that will open up options for other girls,’’ Acree said. “We had six different girls lead us in scoring this year.’’
No one likes the fast rematch.
“We would love to be playing someone else,’’ Acree said. “But that’s the way it’s set up this year. We almost had to play (rival) Calhoun County in the first round.”
No one believes tonight’s game will be another blowout.
Herald No. 5 Mitchell (21-9) is led by Herald Super 6er A’Miracle Jones, who is averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds a game, and Breka Holton, who is averaging 10 points and 15 rebounds a game. After Mitchell beat Irwin County in the playoffs last week, Whitlock said if they both play the way they can play then Mitchell should win the game against Randolph-Clay.
Whitlock said she couldn’t control the bracket, and that upsets do happen.
“To win a state title you are going to have to beat a team that’s better than you,’’ she said. “We would have liked to have played them later (for the state title), but we’re playing them now. We just have to believe we can beat them.’’
Pelham Lady Hornets to face huge test vs. undefeated Laney
AUGUSTA — While Randolph-Clay and Mitchell stage one of the best showdowns in the Class A state tournament in Cuthbert, Pelham’s girls will be in Augusta tonight facing their biggest test of the season against an unbeaten Laney team that went to the Final Four a year ago and has won 54 of its last 55 games, including a 28-0 record this season.
“We know they are undefeated,’’ Pelham coach Antonia Tookes said. “But I’m not scared, and that’s the attitude my kids have. We’re 26-4, and we could have gone undefeated this year. We lost games by one point, three points and in overtime.’’
Pelham went to the Elite 8 last year and returns almost everyone from that team, including Herald Super 6er Briunna Freeman, who is averaging 19 points and nine rebounds a game. Freeman is not afraid of anything.
When she heard critics in Pelham doubt her team before the opening-round game against Northeast Macon, Freeman was livid, saying everyone was making a big deal because the other team was from Macon, and after beating Macon, 48-30, she made her point by saying, “Well, I’m from Pelham.’’
Freeman, point guard Hillary Williams (11 points per game) and sophomore post Timbreanna Hudson lead the Lady Hornets, who have lost to only one Class AA team this season — Thomasville, which is still alive in the playoffs.
Tookes said she would love to meet Thomasville in the state title game, and that’s possible. But Laney presents a huge front line.
“They’re big,’’ Tookes said. “They’re 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. But we’re going to do what we do. Everybody knows what we do — we’re going to press and make them play our game. Our goal is to get to the Final Four.
“Everyone keeps telling us that they are undefeated like we should be scared or something,’’ said Tookes, who took her team to Augusta Monday to get ready for tonight’s 6 p.m. game.
“We’re here,’’ she said on the phone from Augusta Monday night. “And we didn’t come all this way to get an L. We came to get a W.’’