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PREVIEW: No. 2 Darton, No. 1 Georgia Highlands women clash today for top spot in Region XVII

Going into today’s huge showdown with region No. 1 Georgia Highlands, Darton State College women’s coach Lea Henry, left, has led the Lady Cavs to a 16-2 record, including six straight wins and 14 victories in their last 15 games. After last year’s record-breaking season in Americus as coach of the South Georgia Tech women’s team, Brandan Harrell, a Donalsonville native, bolted to start a new program at Georgia Highlands — but little did anyone know how much success the Lady Chargers (15-1) would have right away. (Photos by David Mann/Darton State College & Rome News-Tribune)

Going into today’s huge showdown with region No. 1 Georgia Highlands, Darton State College women’s coach Lea Henry, left, has led the Lady Cavs to a 16-2 record, including six straight wins and 14 victories in their last 15 games. After last year’s record-breaking season in Americus as coach of the South Georgia Tech women’s team, Brandan Harrell, a Donalsonville native, bolted to start a new program at Georgia Highlands — but little did anyone know how much success the Lady Chargers (15-1) would have right away. (Photos by David Mann/Darton State College & Rome News-Tribune)

ROME — Brandan Harrell isn’t calling it a rivalry.

Not yet, anyway.

But when Harrell’s first-year Georgia Highlands program hosts Darton State College today, it could be the start of something special between the two teams.

“I know Darton is always going to be successful, so if we are in the conversation with them, then that’s a good thing for us,” Harrell, the former South Georgia Tech women’s head coach, said earlier this week in a telephone interview with The Herald. “I think Darton is going to be at the top from here on out.”

A win today, and the Lady Cavs will be on top.

But for now, Harrell and his Lady Chargers (15-1 overall) are all alone at the top of the Region XVII standings with a perfect 7-0 record. Darton isn’t far behind at 8-1 in the region, which means today’s game in Rome could go a long way in determining the regular-season champion and the host of next month’s Region XVII Tournament.

“We know what is on the line,” said Darton coach Lea Henry, whose only region loss was Dec. 8 at Georgia Perimeter. “We talk about the opportunity we have to host the tournament and win the regular season. But in order to do that, you have to win the big games. We have already had another slip up, and we can’t afford another.”

Nobody in the state is hotter right now than either Darton or Georgia Highlands, who have combined to win 28 of their last 30 games. Georgia Highlands, the 9th-ranked NJCAA team in the country, began the season with 14 straight wins before finally losing Dec. 31 to St. Petersburg College (Fla.). The Lady Cavs (16-2) have won six in a row and 14 of their last 15 and are ranked No. 18 in the country.

For Darton star guard Michelle Mitchell, it doesn’t get any bigger than today’s matchup.

“Everybody knows there is a lot on the table for this game,” Mitchell said Friday at practice. “Everybody knows to stay focused and play hard. We have to stay mentally tough. This is the biggest game we have had this year, and we need to stay focused and go out there and compete.”

Mitchell is 0-for-2 against Harrell-coached teams after South Georgia Tech swept the Lady Cavs last year during the regular season, which was Harrell’s last year at the Americus school before moving to Rome to help start the team at Georgia Highlands.

Today could be a defining moment for the infant program.

“(Today’s) game is going to have serious implications on how things shape up at the end of the season,” Harrell said. “I don’t know if you can call this a rivalry just yet, but I think I would call it a very important game.”

This is uncharted territory for a school that officially added an athletics program in the fall of 2012, but it’s nothing new for Harrell, who started the South Georgia Tech program in Americus eight years ago and compiled a 152-108 record before leaving.

Harrell, a Donalsonville native, was 118-48 overall and 56-10 in the region his final five years at SGTC but decided to leave Americus because of issues that had nothing to do with the basketball program.

“We had kind of entrusted our kids to the public school system of Sumter County, and with everything that happened with the school board, we felt like the public school system was breaking down,” said Harris, referring to recent issues involving leadership and governance with the Sumter County Board of Education. “My son was going into ninth grade, and we also didn’t want to get him halfway through high school and change towns. South Georgia Tech was a good place to work, and I enjoyed my time there. I could have stayed there and been happy. We just wanted a fresh start.”

When Harrell left for Georgia Highlands, he took three of his best players from last year’s 24-9 SGCT team with him — star forward Shanique Holston, sharp shooter Manon Cherubini and red-shirt freshman Shakierya McClendon.

Holston left the team and the school four games into the season, just one of a series of curve balls thrown at Harris and his Lady Chargers.

They started the season with 13 players on their roster, but now they are down to eight — and only six of those eight are completely healthy.

“We lost two scholarship players, two walk-ons and two more had knee surgeries,” Harrell said. “Obviously, things have been tough, but I think that’s what builds character and what has encouraged them to work harder. It would have been easy to fold up camp and accept the fact that we are just a first-year program and expectations are low. But these kids have buckled down and fought through injuries and bumps and bruises.”

And they’ve turned into a team that has been unbeatable in the region.

The Lady Cavs are looking to change that.

“Our kids don’t get too caught up in other teams. We try to just worry about ourselves,” said Henry, who is in her second year as head coach at Darton. “But they are very much aware of what they are playing for. They like the challenge of it. Sitting here with a 16-2 record, we haven’t been challenged a whole lot this year. I think they are looking forward to it. We are going (into today’s game) understanding exactly what is on the line.”

Darton has won by an average of 29.3 points during its six-game winning streak and has outscored opponents by an average of 30.2 points this season. And Mitchell, who is being recruited by several top Division I schools, is a big part of Darton’s success. The 5-foot-9 guard from Eastman is averaging 16.2 points, 7 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game.

“If you look at rankings, we have played some higher-ranked teams (than Darton) this year,” Harrell said. “But if you look at individuals, Michelle Mitchell might be the best player we see all year. And there are some good players around her.”

Sophomore forward Chanteniece Fann is Darton’s biggest post presence, and she returns today from a knee injury that kept her out of the lineup the last three games.

“I can’t sleep at night. I haven’t slept all week because I am so excited for this one,” said Fann, who is averaging 11.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. “I’m excited to be back.”

So are her teammates.

“It’s big to have (Fann) back. She is a key player, so we need her back so she can do what she does in the post,” Mitchell said. “She is very aggressive down there, and when it’s time to score, she scores.”

Even with Fann out recently, Henry plugged in enough pieces to keep the Lady Cavs’ hot streak going.

“We have a team that is playing hard,” Henry said. “We have made a bigger commitment to defense. We have some good players, and these players have worked hard and bought into our system. They have developed chemistry and confidence as the year has gone on, and winning just breeds more confidence.”

Behind Mitchell and Fann, the Lady Cavs have six other players averaging between 5-10 points per game: Shronica Weaver (9.3 ppg), Tamarah Fisher (8.6), Jasmine Wilson (8.5), Iesha Bonner (8.5), Kadayasha Jones (5.8) and Crystal Reed (5.8).

It’s been Darton’s defense, however, that lifted the Lady Cavs into the Top 20 earlier this week for the first time since Henry took over the program.

The Lady Cavs average 11.4 steals per game and hold opponents to a shooting percentage of 27.8 from the field, which is second-best in the country.

The full-court, non-stop pressure is what has Harrell worried for the first of two regular-season games against Darton.

“They have long, athletic kids, and they play hard and have quick feet,” Harrell said. “Trying to figure out a way to score is going to be a huge issue for us.”

Highlands hasn’t had any trouble figuring out how to score so far.

Four Lady Chargers — Seandre Lee (13.6 ppg), Cherubini (13.3), Gabrielle Kendall (11.8) and McClendon (11.7) — average in double figures.

Henry isn’t surprised that Harrell was able to bring so much talent to an unheard-of program.

“The key to winning is talent,” she said. “The team that is going to win isn’t the team with the best coach, but it’s the team with the best talent. That’s how it is at any level. He was able to take some good kids with him, and he does a good job with them. The key for us all is finding good players, and he does a good job of finding them. Once your kids have success, they start to expect it. He took that mentality with him from South Georgia Tech to Georgia Highlands.”

The winning mentality that Henry brought to Darton was decades in the making.

After playing college ball for the legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who won more games than anyone in NCAA college basketball history, Henry won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, coached 20 years at the Division I level and is enshrined in both the Lady Volunteer Hall of Fame and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.

“She has probably forgotten more about basketball than I will ever know,” Harrell said. “With what she has accomplished, there is no way you could ever compare me to her. One hundred years from now there is no way I will be able to accomplish what she has. I have tremendous respect for her. Just to be able to stand on the same sideline as her is really an honor for me.”