Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Full semifinal previews

The semifinals at Gwinnett Arena and the Macon Centreplex start Wednesday; here are Score Atlanta’s previews of every upcoming Final Four matchup.


Newnan Cougars vs. Milton Eagles

While it was no surprise to see Wheeler or Westlake in the Final Four, the other semifinal game features two teams that few had expected to get this far early on. The Milton Eagles have been one of the more fascinating stories of the postseason, storming through the state tournament with a very young team. Sophomore Julian Royal collected 32 points and 10 boards in the quarterfinal victory over South Gwinnett, and is considered one of the country’s top sophomores. Dai-Jon Parker is also a 10th grader, and freshman Evan Nolte has been coming on lately.

The Eagles will face another surprise team in Newnan. The Cougars were eliminated in the first round of the state playoffs in 2008; now they’re playing in Gwinnett Arena. Russell Powell runs the Cougars’ offense – the 5-foot-8 point guard is a top playmaker with elite quickness. Alec Ogletree, one of the top football recruits in Georgia, is a constant source of energy. 

Westlake Lions vs. Wheeler Wildcats

After being eliminated the past two years by eventual state champion Norcross, the Wheeler Wildcats finally got over the hump. They finally beat their nemesis in the Elite 8 last week, pulling away in the final quarter en route to a 60-44 win. The Wildcats will face Westlake in the semifinals, and the Lions will most certainly have their hands full. Wheeler features an unparalleled array of talent, with a starting lineup that includes top-tier upperclassmen in Ari Stewart, Phil Taylor and Richard Howell. With Norcross finally out of the way, this might be Wheeler’s year.

But the Westlake Lions are one of the few teams that rival Wheeler in individual talent. Marcus Thornton, a 6-foot-7 Clemson commit, will give Stewart all he can handle in the post, and Javoris Bryant is the heart and soul of the team at the point guard position. The Region 4-AAAAA champions have rattled off 14 straight wins, entering the semis with plenty of confidence. 



Redan Raiders vs. Parkview Panthers

The Parkview Panthers have looked primed for a deep state tournament run since Day 1. They’ve lost just one game all season and don’t make too many miscues on the court. Junior Lauren Coleman is a terror for opposing defenses and is one of the best post players left in the tournament. Sophomore guard Katie Carroll is also a difficult cover and her scoring ability from the perimeter makes the two an effective inside-outside combo. 

Parkview has lost just once all year but the Redan Raiders have them beat, as they have yet to lose a game at 25-0. Power forward Nia Evans poses an athletic challenge for defenses, and point guard Alisha Andrews is one of the quickest players in the game. Andrews thrives in an offense where she can get the ball to legit scorers such as Evans, Aneesah Daniels and Kierra Paige.

Beach Bulldogs vs. Marietta Blue Devils

Although the Beach Bulldogs might be the most off-the-radar team in the semis, fans will learn plenty about this team quickly. The Bulldogs feature a two-headed monster in seniors Monique Willis and Khalilah Watson. Willis notched a double-double in the team’s upset victory over Westlake in the Elite 8, while Watson checked in with 26 points. Paige Johnson is a testament to the heart on Ronald Booker’s team; she fought through a knee injury to score 14 crucial points against Westlake.

Beach will battle the Marietta Blue Devils, champions of Region 5. Senior forward Telia McCall is one of the best players in the state, scoring an incredible 28 points in the Blue Devils’ first-round victory over Lassiter. The Virginia Cavaliers commit can score and rebound, and has been a pillar of consistency all year. Brittney Echols heads up a strong backcourt that includes Brittany White and Courtney Sprague.



Bainbridge Bearcats vs. Tucker Tigers

Tucker, the third seed out of Region 6, began the state playoffs with a win over second-seeded Lithia Springs. The Tigers then defeated Region 7 champion Hillgrove, 62-59, and fellow Region 6 rival Marist, 49-47, to reach the Elite 8. The Tigers had lost to Marist twice this season before gaining the upper hand on the War Eagles. Junior center Brandon Dawson led the offense with 17 points. Virginia Tech signee Manny Atkins finished with 16. Tucker last won the Class AAAA state championship in 2007, defeating Columbia in the finals. The Tigers’ other basketball state championship came in 1996.

Bainbridge defeated Statesboro, 50-46, in the quarterfinals as senior guard James Lodman dunked over a Blue Devils defender to give the Bearcats the lead. Lodman finished with 11 points. Senior forward Melzie Johnson led the team with 13 points. Point guard Marquis Williams added 10. The Bearcats are playing in the Final Four for the first time in school history. 

Richmond Academy Musketeers vs. Miller Grove Wolverines

Miller Grove has advanced to the Final Four with stellar offensive play. The Wolverines have averaged 86 points per game in the playoffs. Georgia Tech signee Mfon Udofia scored 35 points and fellow senior Stephen Hill added 27 points in the team’s quarterfinal victory against Fayette County, a team that reached the state championship one year ago.

After losing in the second round of the playoffs in the past two postseasons, Richmond Academy is now in the Final Four. The Region 3 champions defeated Alcovy in the first round, Brunswick in the second round, and then Glynn Academy in the Elite 8 thanks to a 3-point buzzer-beater by sophomore guard Don Quarles. Senior center Ricardo Glenn scored 14 points to lead the Musketeers against Glynn Academy. Richmond Academy has advanced with a smothering defense that has only allowed an average of 37.3 points in the playoffs. This will be the school’s first trip to the state semifinals since a runner-up finish in 1957.



Bainbridge Bearcats vs. Southwest DeKalb Panthers

Southwest DeKalb, the defending Class AAAA state champions, didn’t even win Region 6 this season but once again find themselves in the Final Four. The Panthers’ run began with a 64-61 victory over Douglas County in the first round. After a 67-60 win over Madison County, the Panthers defeated Northwest Whitfield, 57-49, behind 15 points from junior forward Kayla Lewis. Senior forwards Jamesha Blake and Laquisha Lewis scored 14 and 11, respectively.

Bainbridge, a Sweet 16 team for the past two seasons, needed overtime to beat Harlem, 58-57, to advance to the Elite 8. The Bearcats then defeated Hardaway, 69-58, to reach the Final Four. Junior center Alexis Burke, a member of the ESPNU HoopGurlz Super 60 Class of 2010, finished with 31 points for the Bearcats. Bainbridge has a young roster, ensuring success for years to come. For now, sophomore point guard Bria Harris and freshman guard Briana Wade are two key players to watch. 

Jonesboro Cardinals vs. Fayette County Tigers

Jonesboro and Fayette County each display high-scoring, balanced offenses that have averaged 63 and 56 points in the playoffs, respectively. Jonesboro features senior guards Joi Holyfield and Drameka Griggs. Holyfield finished with 19 points—which included five 3-pointers—in a 60-40 quarterfinals victory over Hephzibah. Sharmesia Smith, a Mercer signee, roams the post for the Cardinals.

Fayette County features senior point guard Tessah Holt, a Florida signee who finished with 18 points in a 60-44 quarterfinals win over Marist. Sasha Sims added 16 and Anma Onyeuku 14 in the post for the Tigers. Fayette County finished second in Class AAAA a year ago, losing to Southwest DeKalb in the state championship game. The Tigers haven’t lost since, going 30-0 this season. The Cardinals and Tigers share one common opponent, Sandy Creek: Jonesboro defeated the Fighting Patriots 50-42, while Fayette County won 47-45.



Gainesville Red Elephants vs. Westover Patriots

Gainesville and Westover were two of four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four of the Class AAA state tournament. Neither team was a convincing No. 1 in its respective region, however. Gainesville started the season 5-7 but the Red Elephants found their way and have won 15 of their past 16 games, including the Region 7 title and three straight double-digit victories in the state playoffs. Will Maddox and George Manomano have been leading the way for Gainesville.

Westover went 10-3 during the Region 1 regular season and avenged a previous loss to Kendrick in the region final. The Patriots have been the least dominant of the four semifinalists en route to the Final Four but have proven they can win the close games. Westover beat Shaw, 71-64, in the first round; survived Liberty County, 62-58, to reach the quarters; and most recently took out Northside, Columbus, 55-45. Westover, led by Greg Green, is arguably the deepest team in the Class AAA tournament.

South Atlanta Hornets vs. Columbia Eagles

South Atlanta has won its three state tournament games by a combined 107 points. The Hornets have not lost an in-state game this season and are showing no signs of losing one at any point next weekend. Georgia Tech signee Derrick Favors, who eased his way to 28 points in a 90-67 quarterfinal win over Washington County, is the guy Columbia must contain in order to have any shot at an upset at the Macon Centreplex.

But don’t count the Eagles out. They are in the midst of a 14-game winning streak and their 16-point blowout of Elbert County in the quarters was the closest they have come to losing since Jan. 27. JerShon Cobb and Darnelius Session provided more than two-thirds of the scoring against Elbert, and the Eagles have had their share of success in the postseason, winning last year’s Class AAAA state title before moving down to AAA.



Rutland Hurricanes vs. Carrollton Trojans

Only two teams that failed to earn a No. 1 seed are still alive in the AAA state playoffs (in both the boys and girls tournaments). Those two teams will meet in the semifinals when Carrollton takes on Rutland. Carrollton is certainly playing like a No. 1 seed, however. The Trojans’ only two losses this season came against the other two semifinalists (Baldwin and Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe). After dominating their way to the quarterfinals, the Trojans survived Columbia, 67-65, in double-overtime. Carrollton’s Karisma Boykins, who averages 28 points per game, scored 10 of her 16 in extra time.

Rutland also knows a thing or two about winning close games. The Hurricanes pulled out a 73-68 thriller over Spalding to get the No. 3 seed in Region 4, and they have won three state tournament games by a combined seven points. Rutland won its first two games on the road to reach the quarterfinals, ousting No. 1 seed Kendrick.

Baldwin Braves vs. Lakeview-Ft. Oglethorpe

Lakeview-Ft. Oglethorpe is undefeated in Class AAA play but survived a 47-43 scare against St. Pius X in its tournament opener. After easing past Stephens County into the quarterfinals, the Warriors pulled out another thriller, 52-49, this time over Dunwoody. Jasmain Carey and Kayla Weaver provide the Warriors with a potent inside-outside combination.

Baldwin is 18-1 against AAA competition but almost lost to Dougherty in the second round of the state tournament before prevailing 37-35. Baldwin star Shan Basley nailed a game-winning jumper as time expired. The Braves had an easier time with Peach County, winning 48-35 to book a spot in the last four. Basley and Teshia Griswold must continue to fill up the score sheet if the Braves want to keep up with Carey, Weaver and Lakeview-Ft. Oglethorpe.



Greene County Tigers vs. Blessed Trinity Titans

After a losing season last year, Greene County is the Cinderella story of Class AA’s Final Four. With a decisive 77-54 win over region nemesis Henry County, the Tigers should have an even greater boost of confidence against the Titans. The 23-point victory was surely a nice change for Greene, who won its first- and second-round games by only two points.

Blessed Trinity went on a 13-4 run to start the game against Dade County in the quarterfinals and never looked back, as the Titans coasted to a 90-68 victory. Despite a late run by the Wolverines, the Titans were able to use their size advantage to be the aggressor in the paint all night. Ryan LeGates had a strong offensive game and Arris Brundidge scored 20 points. The Titans’ ability to drive the ball to the basket may force Greene County into foul trouble. 

Dublin Fighting Irish vs. Greater Atlanta Christian Spartans

After losing in the Final Four last year to Wesleyan, Dublin looks to make the jump to the finals this year. Among the schools left, the Fighting Irish are the only team that made it past the second round of the tournament in 2008. The Fighting Irish will likely turn to the experience of seven seniors, including standout Rashard Smith, to help them emerge victorious. Dublin is coming off a 67-49 win over Central Macon that was closer than the score indicates through the first half.

Greater Atlanta Christian punched its ticket to the Final Four by pummeling Coosa, 81-36, in the quarterfinal round. Senior power forward Trent Wiedeman set the tone early for GAC with his emotional play at the low post. Scoring 17 points, Wiedeman, along with teammates Elliott Long and Taylor Metzger, led the way for the Spartans. Now that the Spartans have eliminated Coosa—which eliminated GAC in 2008—they are looking to ride that momentum toward a state title.



Henry County Warhawks vs. Model Blue Devils

Though they entered the tournament as a No. 3 seed, the Warhawks defeated three higher-seeded teams to reach the semifinals. Led by junior shooting guard Briana Williams, the Warhawks will now look to end Model’s title aspirations. After close victories in the first two rounds, the Warhawks beat Greene County, 57-38, in the Elite 8 to advance to the Final Four.

But if there is one word that describes the Model Blue Devils, it’s balance. You never really know whether the scoring is going to come from the inside or outside – and that’s what makes this team so dangerous. In its latest 62-52 victory over Greater Atlanta Christian, Model utilized the inside play of Maci Siniard and Shelby Farrer to overpower the GAC defense. Add Janaye Jasper to the mix and the trio brings a vital size advantage into this matchup. The Blue Devils are undefeated this season. 

Laney Wildcats vs. Buford Wolves

Laney is undefeated this year in Class AA competition; the team’s only three defeats on the year were to Class AAAA’s Hephzibah, Class AAAAA’s Marietta and Parkway Academy of Florida. The Wildcats are coming off a 70-45 drubbing of Northeast Macon. Center Taylor Ayers had 25 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in the win. The Wildcats have not lost since Dec. 20 and with more than 20 consecutive victories, the team seems poised for a great performance.

In similar fashion, Buford went undefeated in AA competition this year (the only loss of the season came to Class AAAA’s Marist in double overtime. The Wolves are quick and athletic. Amongst their starting five, led by Auburn commit Blanche Alverson, each member has excellent ball-handling and passing skills. They are a strong defensive and rebounding team. Alverson had 17 in Buford’s quarterfinal victory over Rabun County. Trust us – Ayers vs. Alverson will be worth the price of admission.



Turner County Rebels vs. Athens Christian Eagles

Turner County has made it to the Macon Centreplex on the shoulders of Ternell Davis and his 24 points per game. The Rebels’ record stands at 29-1 (with no losses since Dec. 6), and head coach Eric Holland and his squad would love to see it end at 31-1. TuCo made it this far with wins over Seminole County (87-38), Hancock Central (70-57), and Region 1 champion Terrell County (68-63). Ternell Davis and Tray Pearce are known to attack the rim.

If Turner County is to advance to the finals, however, it will have to knock off another contender in Athens Christian. The Eagles, champions of Region 8, have won 21 straight and are led by the super-athletic Raymond Higgs. Despite foul trouble, Higgs still managed 21 points in the quarterfinal-round victory over Greenforest Christian, and David Mann, a German exchange student, recorded 34 in the win. Mann is also automatic from the free throw line, an important factor if this game is close at the end. 

Wilcox County Patriots vs. Whitefield Academy Wolfpack

Wilcox County is the Cinderella team of Class A, as the third-seeded Patriots are the only non-No. 1 in the semifinals. Head coach George Kennedy’s team has advanced by conquering Clinch County, squeezing Region 3 champ Calvary Day and then besting point guard Brit Duncan and No. 2 Wilkinson County. The Patriots have received points from many different sources this season, including sophomore Nick Marshall, who scored a school-record 42 earlier this year against Telfair County.

The Patriots will face yet another ranked opponent in the semifinals in No. 3 Whitefield Academy (ranking according to the GACA Coaches Poll). The Wolfpack advanced to the semifinals with a 75-53 victory over No. 9 Darlington. Head coach Tyrone Johnson’s team is led by a prolific scorer in Brandon Reed. During the season, Reed averaged 20 points per game and in the win over Darlington, Reed nearly reached that total by halftime. Whitefield Academy reached the state final in 2006 and 2007, losing both times.



Randolph-Clay Red Devils vs. Wesleyan Wolves

In a true “Clash of the Titans,” the Randolph-Clay Red Devils will battle Wesleyan. Randolph-Clay is led by a host of juniors, most notably Destiny Mitchell. It was Mitchell’s 33 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter, that helped Jennifer Acree’s squad knock out defending Class A state champion Calvary Day in the first round. The Red Devils are coming off an impressive 15-point win over Emanuel County Institute in the quarterfinals.

Wesleyan won the 2008 Class AA state championship before moving down to Class A. Anne Marie Armstrong, who was named Miss Georgia Basketball, leads the way. Armstrong had 19 points in the team’s second-round thrashing of Darlington. Her running mate is junior guard Erin Hall, who scored 18 points against Towns County in the quarterfinal round. Wesleyan’s offense is averaging 82 points per game in the playoffs, while the defense is allowing an average of just 29. 

Savannah Country Day Hornets vs. Southwest Atlanta Christian Warriors 

Savannah Country Day is led by senior standout Katherine Dotson, who has stepped up in the playoffs, most recently drilling 31 points in the quarterfinal win over Hancock Central. Dotson receives help from Melissa Burkhamer (17 points and seven assists vs. Hancock Central). The Hornets are 28-3 this season and have not lost since a 55-50 overtime defeat to Savannah Christian on Jan. 27. This will be Savannah Country Day’s second trip to the Final Four in three years. 

Southwest Atlanta Christian won Region 5 but somehow flew under the radar all season long. Head coach Jackie Ransom’s team has the worst record of any team remaining in the draw at 17-12, but the team is hot when it matters the most. The Warriors have reached the semis with a 66-55 victory over Social Circle, preceded by a pair of three-point wins: 52-49 in overtime over Paideia and 56-53 over Trion. Mariah Chandler, who recorded 30 points and 15 rebounds against Social Circle, leads the way for the Warriors.

These reports were compiled by Josh Bagriansky (5A), Derek Wiley (4A), Ricky Dimon (3A), Rajesh Gupta (2A), and Fletcher Proctor (A).