Four Southwest Georgia basketball teams play in today’s state semifinals: the Westover and Calhoun County boys and the Randolph-Clay and Mitchell County girls. From left, Calhoun County’s Devorris Haynes has been a key post player for the Cougars at 6-foot-8; Westover guard Alec Williams is one of seven Patriots averaging at least five points per game; Mitchell County’s Antonia Jones is one of five returning starters for the Lady Eagles; and Randolph-Clay star guard Brandi Buie is averaging 24 points per game and has helped the Lady Red Devils go unbeaten in Class A play this season. (Herald file photos)
Now is the time Westover boys basketball coach Dallis Smith pulls out the state championship rings.
Want To Go?
Class AAAA state semifinals
at West Georgia
4:45 p.m. — Westover boys vs. Columbia
Class A state semifinals
At Savannah State
3 p.m. — Randolph-Clay girls vs. Claxton
6:30 p.m. — Mitchell County girls vs. Greenville
8:15 p.m. — Calhoun County boys vs. Wilkinson County
He carries them into his team’s locker room and gives his kids a subtle reminder of the rich basketball tradition that both his program and Southwest Georgia used to take for granted.
“It fires them up a little bit,” said Smith, who was the head coach at Westover when the Patriots won it all in 2001 and an assistant on the 1998 championship team. “Showing them the rings gives them a little more incentive. It’s telling them, ‘Look, this is what we are playing for.’”
They’re playing for history, and four Southwest Georgia teams are on the brink of snapping a nine-year slump without a state title as the Westover and Calhoun County boys and the Randolph-Clay and Mitchell County girls take the court for Final Four games today.
It’s been a remarkable basketball season already in Southwest Georgia — one that saw the Pelham girls go undefeated until Thursday’s Elite 8 loss, the Seminole County boys rise to No. 1 in the state power rankings and teams like Worth County, Crisp County, Bainbridge and Lee County have their best seasons in years.
But now only four remain.
Southwest Georgia GHSA state champs since 1996
2005 — Randolph-Clay boys (A), Terrell County girls (A)
2004 — Randolph-Clay boys (AA)
2003 — Mitchell-Baker boys (AA), Early County girls (AA)
2001 — Dougherty boys (AAAA), Westover boys (AAA)
2000 — Mitchell-Baker boys (AA), Randolph-Clay girls (AA)
1999 — Mitchell-Baker boys (AA)
1998 — Westover boys (AAA), Mitchell-Baker boys (AA), Seminole County boys (A)
1997 — Dougherty boys (AAA), Calhoun County boys (A), Pelham girls (A)
1996 — Randolph-Clay girls (AA)
After routing state-ranked No. 3 Glenn Hills on Thursday, Westover will take on No. 1 Columbia in the Class AAAA semifinals at the University of West Georgia.
Calhoun County, Randolph-Clay and Mitchell County will all play at Savannah State in the Class A semifinals. The No. 8 seed Cougars are in the Final Four for the first time since 1997 and will play No. 4 Wilkinson County after knocking off No. 1 Treutlen on Thursday. No. 1 Randolph Clay and No. 7 Mitchell County are in opposite semifinals with the Lady Red Devils playing No. 5 Claxton and the Lady Eagles playing No. 6 Greenville.
Last year, the Randolph-Clay girls were Southwest Georgia’s lone GHSA team to advance to the state finals, but it’s been nine years since any team has hoisted a state championship trophy. The last to do so were the Randolph-Clay boys and the Terrell County girls in 2005 — two state titles that capped a nine-year span with 17 state titles among the Southwest Georgia schools.
It’s been nine years of close calls and it-just-wasn’t-our-night games, but four teams are two wins away from snapping the slump.
And Southwest Georgia is buzzing with excitement.
“The whole community is coming together to support these kids,” Calhoun County coach Marcus Shaw said. “Alumni that have moved off are coming back home to support these kids. This means a whole lot for the community.”
Westover boys (23-5) vs. Columbia (27-4),
4:45 p.m. today at the Univ. of West Georgia
This is Smith’s fourth trip to the Final Four since he became the Patriots head coach in 2001, but this is Westover’s first appearance in the semifinals since 2010, which means nobody on the roster has any experience in a game this big.
Columbia, on the other hand, played in last year’s state title game and finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Class AAAA poll. The Eagles have won five state championships in the last eight years and have advanced to the title game the past four seasons.
“Columbia is seasoned, and their coach does a great job,” Smith said. “This will be another test for us.”
The Patriots passed their biggest test of the season Thursday with a 17-point victory against a Glenn Hills team that many thought could challenge for a state title, but Westover flexed its muscles late with a second-half for the ages, outscoring the Spartans 37-17 in the final two quarters.
“Every year there is that one game that you need to get past, and I think (Thursday) was that game for us,” Smith said. “I am happy for the kids and all the work they have put in all year long and to just see them come together the past three games.”
After beating Richmond Academy, 60-51, in the opening round of the state tournament, the Patriots rolled through the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 with back-to-back 17-point wins, but now they are leaving the friendly confines of Boston Garden and entering an arena that sits 6,500.
Westover typically plays a handful of games in the spacious Albany Civic Center in the regular season to give the Patriots a feel for shooting at a free-standing basket, but this season the Patriots only played once in the Civic Center, and they were held to a season-low 45 points in a sloppy victory against Monroe.
“I’m not sure (how we will handle the bigger arena),” Smith said. “I hope we come out and do OK. I just have to remind them that the goal is the same height. Hopefully they will stay grounded and come out OK.”
Westover’s offense has been balanced this season between its top seven scorers with guard Mike Green leading the way with 13 points per game. Columbia has ridden its Big 3 all season as point guard Anthony Rice, shooting guard Bryce Brown and post Nick Singleton combine to score 56 points per game.
Calhoun County boys (25-2) vs. Wilkinson County (24-6), 8:15 p.m. today at Savannah State
Few were talking about Calhoun County before the season began, but the Cougars steadily put together one of Southwest Georgia’s finest seasons and are all of a sudden one win from playing for a Class A state championship.
Surprised? Shaw, his team and the fans in Edison aren’t.
The Cougars returned five starters from last year in Quenton Taylor, Jamario Jackson, Sherrod Williams, DaJohn Williams and Deante Scott and have added pieces to the puzzle like sophomore Reginald Ross and 6-foot-8 senior Devorris Haynes to put together one of the most formidable rosters around.
Calhoun County won the state title in 1997 but hasn’t been back to the Final 4 since — until today when they take on a Wilkinson County team that was the second-highest ranked public school in the AJC Class A state poll.
Shaw said the community support during the season has helped sustain the Cougars’ run.
“Just seeing how excited the community is means a lot,” Shaw said. “We have more support than we have had in a long time. This really means a lot to the kids.”
The Cougars have been fighting to get past the first round of the state playoffs in recent years but broke through that barrier with ease with an 85-64 win against Trion in Tuesday’s opener. On Thursday they knocked off No. 1 seed Treutlen on the road and will take an eye-popping 25-2 record into today’s game. Calhoun County’s only losses this season were Jan. 17 against Randolph-Clay — which snapped a 14-0 start to the season — and Feb. 14 against Randolph-Clay in the Region 1-A semifinals.
Wilkinson County, which enters the semifinals with a five-game winning streak, is quite familiar with the spotlight. The Warriors won last year’s Class A public school title and also brought home state championship trophies in 2011, 2007, 2000 and 1999.
“They are one of those programs with a lot of tradition,” Shaw said. “They are going to come out and play, so we are going to need to come out and match their intensity.”
Randolph-Clay girls (25-4) vs. Claxton (25-5), 3 p.m. today at Savannah State
Championship banners are draped all over the Joe C. Williams Gymnasium in Cuthbert, where the boys and girls basketball teams have combined to win six state titles in the past three decades.
The Lady Red Devils are ready to hang No. 7 — something they were favored to do last season before a stunning state championship loss to Gordon Lee. Randolph-Clay returned to the Class A tournament this year with the No. 1 seed, and now the Lady Red Devils are back in the Final Four and two wins from making room for another state title banner.
“It would be more than nice to break that streak and hang another state championship banner in this gym,” Randolph-Clay coach Jennifer Acree said. “Especially knowing that my name is on that banner as head coach, it would be nice.”
The Lady Red Devils have cruised through the first two rounds of the tournament with wins against Central Talbotton and Towns County, and now No. 5 seed Claxton sits in their way. Claxton and Randolph-Clay ended the regular season as the top two public schools in the AJC’s Class A state poll and both enter today’s game with 25 wins under their belts.
Randolph-Clay sat at No. 1 in the Class A power rankings for much of the season, and when the Lady Red Devils lost three times in six games in January and dropped out of the top spot, Claxton took over as the No. 1 team. And when Claxton fell in the Region 3-A title game to private school powerhouse Calvary Day, Randolph-Clay rose back to No. 1.
“In my opinion they are the true No. 1 based on how they did in the season,” Acree said. “We are going to have to play one of our better games of the season to beat them. We could focus on things they do, but I look at the other end of the spectrum. They have to stop us at what we have been doing well.”
Randolph-Clay has a roster full of talent, but it’s been post Kobi Thornton and guard Brandi Buie who have been a nearly unstoppable 1-2 combination. Thornton, a Herald Super 6er, is averaging 18.1 points per game, and Buie, a strong candidate for The Herald’s Player of the Year award, is averaging 23.9 points per game.
The Lady Red Devils, however, are more than a two-star team — they’ve got depth thanks to role players like Brianna Thornton, Shanice Jackson, Kaderia Parham, Shaaliyah Lewis and Alicia Mathis.
“Like I tell people, we are so much more than just Kobi and Brandi,” Acree said. “They are the focal point because of their numbers and what they have been able to produce, but we do a lot of great things.”
Mitchell County girls (24-6) vs. Greenville (18-9), 3 p.m. today at Savannah State
Mitchell County vs. Greenville isn’t the semifinal matchup that many were expecting to see, but after the No. 7 Lady Eagles and No. 6 Lady Patriots upset the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the Elite 8, they will meet today with a trip to the state championship game on the line.
The Lady Eagles have lost six games this season — but five of those setbacks were to Herald No. 1 Pelham and Region 1-A champion Randolph-Clay. Outside of those losses, Mitchell County is 24-1 and perfect against Class A opponents.
The Lady Eagles’ road to the Final Four went through No. 2 Turner County on Thursday when Mitchell County took a 22-17 lead into halftime and stayed in control throughout the second half, ending a streak of three straight years of Elite 8 losses.
“We just kept getting to this moment, but we couldn’t finish. I told them that we have to break this curse,” Mitchell County coach Rosemary Sanders said on Thursday.
The frontcourt of A’Miracle Jones and Shonbreka Holton have been a big reason why the Lady Eagles have been so dominant this season. Jones, a 5-foot-6 senior, averages 16.2 points per game and Holton, a 5-8 senior, adds 14.2 points per game.
Greenville doesn’t blow anybody away with its regular-season resume, but the Lady Patriots opened the Class A playoffs with a narrow victory against Charlton County before knocking off No. 3 Wilkinson County, 68-60.