Tift County’s Brennan Greene (14) screams as he slams home a dunk against Westover during the first half Tuesday. Greene, who has already committed to D-I powerhouse Kansas, led the Blue Devils all night in the tight contest. (email@example.com)
ALBANY -- Is there a better team in Georgia than Tift County?
Maybe the Atlanta Hawks. Well, on a good night, maybe the Hawks.
The Blue Devils are the top-ranked team in the Peach State in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll and the Max Preps poll and are ranked 27th in the nation in ESPN’s poll -- and they have rolled over everyone they have played in Georgia.
But they looked beatable Tuesday night in Westover’s Boston Garden, where the Blue Devils finally put away Westover, 87-77, in their closest game in Georgia this season.
The bigger question after Tuesday night was this one: Is there a better team against Tift than Westover?
The Patriots made the argument over and over all night long and were still within three or four points in the final minute before Tift County hit a couple of drives and made some free throws at the end to make the final a little more distorted than the actual game.
"It was closer than that (10 points),'' Westover coach Dallis Smith said. "It was close at the end, but then they made some frees throws at the end (to make it a 10-point game).
It took a career-tying 37-point night from Kansas-commit Brannen Greene to hold off Westover, which was led by Herald Super 6er T.J. Cromer, a former student at Tift County whose family moved to Albany last year. Cromer played with passion and heart and finished with 30 points, but it wasn't enough.
"I just think they had more heart at the end,'' Cromer said. "We had heart but not enough in the end.''
Tift had beaten Westover, 89-67, back on Dec. 1 when the season was brand new, but the Patriots have grown a lot and Smith told his kids after the tough loss that if they play like this every night they could make a run in the Class AAAA state playoffs.
"We lost, but I was pleased with the effort,'' Smith said. "(Tift is) big and they're good, but I was pleased with our fight and our effort against them. I think we turned it over too much in the first quarter and gave up too many layups, but we were in the game at the end.''
Cromer said the difference in Tuesday's game and the 22-point loss to Tift in December was Westover's preparation.
"We came out slow in that first game against them. I don't think we were ready the first time we played them,'' Cromer said. "But he had a real hard practice on (Monday), and I think we were better prepared.''
Cromer and fellow Super 6er Kel Miller, who dropped in 19 points, led Westover all night, and T.J. Davis added 15 points and eight rebounds. The Pats simply wouldn't let Tift run away. The game was still in doubt in the final minutes and the crowd was on its feet in an electric atmosphere.
"Westover played lights out, and T.J. Cromer, a former player of mine, played lights out,'' Tift County coach Eric Holland said. "I wasn't surprised. We get everybody's best game. We played a team last week (Brunswick) that shot 70 percent and we beat them by 10. The difference in this game and the first time we played them was they hit shots. They hit some shots (Tuesday). And I think there was some home-cooking with the officials.''
Westover just kept pushing, but every time the Patriots would get within striking distance, Greene would come up big for Tift.
"He's everything they say he is,'' Smith said. "And every time they needed a big basket, they went to him and he got it for them.''
It was the second time this year that Greene --- who had six 3-pointers, five dunks, and eight rebounds --- scored 37 points.
"I just found the open spots on the floor and my teammates got me the ball,'' Greene said modestly. "(Westover) made some shots and (played well). The difference in this game (from the first one) I think was the home court. They had a big crowd, and at the end of the game the crowd was into it.''
Still, Tift pulled it out.
"I think the difference at the end of the game was that we wore them down, and in the end we were the better team,'' Greene said. "But having a close game will help us. I don't foresee many close games in the future so having a close game will help us (in the playoffs).''
Until Tuesday, the only team in Georgia to come this close to Tift was Brunswick, which lost, 82-72, on Jan. 4. Tift’s only losses this season have been to national powerhouses. The Blue Devils lost to a team from California (Long Beach) and a team from Mississippi (Callaway) in the City of Palms Tournament in Florida, which annually brings in some of the top teams in the nation. Tift (13-2) will play national powerhouse St. Anthony on Monday on the court at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in the Hall of Fame Tournament.
It will give Greene and his teammates another national spotlight. Greene plays the game as if he is ready for Division I right now. Greene, a 6-foot-7 forward, can play outside and is dangerous at the wing and deadly from 3-point range. He opened the game by hitting back-to-back 3s and just kept coming.
Westover gave Tift all it wanted and was within three to six points all night. The Patriots closed the score to 59-58 with 1:20 left in the third on a Miller trey, but Tift finished the quarter with a 7-3 run to take a 66-61 lead into the fourth quarter.
The Patriots simply never quit and closed to 66-63 on a Cromer drive with 7:30 left. The game was stopped at that point and it took several minutes to work out a debate about the score. After a long discussion at the scorer’s table about the correct score, the issue --- the two scoring books didn’t match --- was finally settled.
After the delay, Greene took over and hit his fifth trey of the night to give Tift a 69-63 lead, then grabbed his seventh rebound and handed out a slick assist to D.J. Bryant, who hit a drive for a 71-63 lead with 5:11 left.
After a Westover turnover, Greene busted his sixth 3-pointer to give Tift a 74-63 lead with 4:49 left, and the Blue Devils knew what to do with the lead, hanging on to stay perfect in Georgia.
Still, it was a long night for Tift. Westover made the Blue Devils work. The Pats played tough and trailed by just five points at the end of the first.
Westover knotted the score 18-18 at late in the first quarter but a late surge by Tift’s Tadric Jackson, who scored seven points in the final minute and gave Tift a 25-20 lead. Tift went on a dunk-a-thon (five dunks) in the second quarter and went to halftime leading, 46-39, before opening up the lead in the third.
Greene, who was averaging 26 points and five rebounds a game, went to halftime with 18 points with a pair of 3s and four dunks and just kept coming, dropping in 19 in the second half. In the end, he was the difference for Class AAAAAA Tift, which plays at Colquitt County on Friday.
Westover (12-5), the No. 2 team in The Herald’s Fab 5 Poll, which does not include Tifton, gets back to Region 1-AAAA play on Friday against Cairo in the Boston Garden.