Dallis Smith's Westover boys host state No. 1 Eagles Landing tonight in the GHSA Class AAAA Elite 8.
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WHO: Eagles Landing boys (25-5) at Westover (23-5).
WHAT: Elite 8 round of the GHSA Class AAAA state playoffs.
WHEN: 6 p.m. today.
WHERE: Westover High School.
LIVE UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
ALBANY — Last week at practice, the day before Westover met Monroe in the Region 1-AAAA title game, T.J. Cromer went up to the balcony of the Westover gym and started taking shots at the baskets below him on the other side of the court.
Cromer made the unusual shots, one from each balcony and one from the corner at the top of the stairs.
Pretty amazing stuff.
And that’s a perfect metaphor for where Westover’s Patriots are today.
They are the ultimate long shot, the underdog of underdogs. It’s David and Goliath, but Goliath has cornered the market on all the stones in this one.
No one gives Westover a chance tonight against Eagles Landing, which is not only the No. 1-ranked Class AAAA team in Georgia but a team that was built to demolish average — and even good — teams.
The Golden Eagles have one of the largest fronts anywhere, and the team’s best guard is from Miami, where he played for a powerhouse program that was fined for using three players with falsified addresses. He was one of them.
“They’re big,” said Westover coach Dallis Smith, whose Patriots meet Eagles Landing at 6 p.m. today in the Boston Garden in the Elite 8 round of the Class AAAA playoffs. “They’re 6-9, 6-8, 6-8 and they have another guy who is 6-7. And they can all play. Normally you don’t see that in a high school team. Usually you see that in a college team. And they’ve got a guard who is really good and can jump.’’
If all the schools in Albany put together an all-star team, that team wouldn’t be as tall as Eagles Landing. In fact, Smith thought about it for a minute and couldn’t come up four players in all of Southwest Georgia who are 6-9, 6-8, 6-8 and 6-7. But he’s not surprised to see a team from the Atlanta area with this kind of talent. The last time Westover (23-5) reached the Final Four in 2010 the Patriots lost to Columbia, another Atlanta area team that had a similar front line of this size and talent.
“When you get to this time of the year, most of the teams you play from Atlanta are made up of AAU players,’’ Smith said. “I call them make-shift teams or made-up teams. They’re made up of players. It’s more of an AAU team (than a high school team). You end up playing, like, an AAU traveling team. It’s just something you have to deal with if you get this far in the state tournament.”
Eagles Landing (25-5) has lost just one game to a team from Georgia, falling, 81-72, to another state No. 1 — Tift County in AAAAAA — at the City of Palms Tournament in Florida.
The Golden Eagles have won 16 in a row and have made a mockery of the first two rounds of the state tournament. They just beat Perry, 86-50, in the Sweet 16.
Albany High lost to Eagles Landing in the opening round of the playoffs, 39-13, on a night when coach Archie Chatmon had his team hold the ball for nearly the entire game. Afterward, Chatmon said he felt like his kids weren’t just playing a college team, but a major college team.
Cromer said Westover won’t be intimidated and pulled out the old cliché, saying, “They put their pants on one leg at a time just like we do.’’
When Smith heard of Cromer’s comment, he smiled and said, “Yeah, but their pants are a lot longer.’’
Smith can laugh because he knows what his kids are up against — and he also knows Westover can beat Eagles Landing. His kids will shock all of Georgia if they win tonight, but Smith’s teams have done it before. After all, this is Westover, where they have won six state titles and have more tradition and basketball pride than any team in Southwest Georgia.
“It means something to have Westover written on your chest,’’ said Cromer with a shot of pride in his voice. “And we’re playing them here in the Boston Garden. Westover has a great tradition, and we want to be part of that legacy.’’
All of that tradition means something to the Westover kids, who believe they can win tonight. Cromer pointed to the Tift County games.
“Tift County beat Eagles Landing by nine points,’’ he said, knowing that Westover lost to Tift by 10 at the Boston Garden. “We have to play with heart and not let all their size and all that scare us; just play basketball.’’
No one has been hotter than Cromer, a Herald Super 6er who is playing his best basketball at crunch time. He has scored 108 points in the last four games, including 27 in Westover’s 78-63 win against Westside, Macon in the Sweet 16 round Friday night. Cromer and fellow Super 6er Kel Miller, who led the Patriots with 23 points in their 84-59 opening-round victory against North Clayton, have both not only led the team on the court, but they each have emerged as the emotional leaders of this team.
Miller’s brother came off the bench on the 2010 Westover team that faced a similar situation in the Elite 8 against a much taller and stacked team from South Atlanta. Not only was South Atlanta much taller than the Patriots, but Westover’s two big men fouled out in the fourth quarter. Smith was down to his eighth man off the bench when Westover won the game in overtime. Kyle Baker, who starts for Westover, also had an older brother in that game.
Westover has a long list of inspirational victories like that one, and Smith hopes his kids can get one more tonight — the kind of shock-the-world game that will have everyone in Georgia talking about the Patriots.
“Miller’s brother and Baker’s brother both came off the bench for us that night against South Atlanta,’’ Smith said. “A lot of people didn’t think we were going to win that game. We do have tradition at Westover, and it means something. We preach it all the time. We never speak of losing.’’
They have heard it from everyone else this week.
“Everyone is doubting us because (Eagles Landing is) so tall,’’ Miller said. “And everybody is saying how they beat Albany, 39-13, and we had to go into overtime against Albany. I hear it every day how we’re going to lose.’’
Then he smiled and added: “We know they are tall and big and have these players, but we’re just going to play basketball. I‘m ready to play. I’m not intimidated. We’ve got to hit our open shots, and we’ve got to run the floor. We know if we drive in there that they’re going to block our shots, so we have to hit our shots.
“We have them in the Boston Garden, and it will be packed. A lot of people will come to this game just to see them, but we’ve been talking about this since last summer, talking about getting past this round and going to the Final Four. It will take a lot of heart to get there, but if T.J. and me play well, then everybody will play well. We have heart on this team.’’
Smith knows it will take everybody tonight.
“We’ve got to have everyone play well from 1 through 5 and the bench,’’ he said. “It will take a total team effort to have a chance. We have to execute our game plan, and because of their size, everyone will have to rebound.’’
Westover has lost to only two teams all season. Monroe beat the Patriots three times before Westover beat the Tornadoes to win the Region 1-AAAA title, and Westover lost twice to Tift County, the top-ranked Class AAAAAA team in Georgia. In the second game, Westover trailed by just three points with a minute left before losing, 87-77.
“We have some experience playing against Tift,’’ Smith said. “It’s going to take that kind of effort (against Eagles Landing). We have to have a great effort from everyone.”
Cromer put it simply.
“We have to play with heart, with everything we’ve got,’’ he said. “We have to play like there is no tomorrow, because there is none if we don’t beat them.’’