On the prep hard court this 2011-12 season, region tournaments are less than a month away and then will begin hopefully a successful run to state titles for at least a pair of local teams.
The Lovett girls are 15-3 and ranked atop the Class AA standings heading into Friday’s 5:30 p.m. game at Cross Keys. Meanwhile, the Whitefield Academy boys, 14-3, take a No. 2 Class A state ranking into tonight’s 7:30 p.m. game at Strong Rock Academy.
Also Friday night, the Campbell boys, 7-8 overall and 2-5 in region play, and the Lady Spartans, 8-7 and 4-3, play host to Region 4-AAAAA rival South Cobb in games slated to begin at 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
At Lovett, the Lions are led by college signees, Tatianna Jackson (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) and Christen Johnson (Northwestern University), as they play the first of four straight road games tonight. Lovett, which has only fallen to powers St. Pius, Wesleyan and Memphis Central of Tennessee, plays at No. 3 Buford on Saturday.
Lovett and Buford a part of a stout Region 6 that also includes No. 5 Decatur and No. 9 GAC, both of whom coach Liz Kennedy's Lions have defeated this year.
Speaking of Buford, the No. 3-ranked boys team in Class AA recently went down by 10 points to the Whitefield Academy boys. Once again, Whitefield coach Tyrone Johnson, who has only twice in the last 10 years failed to guide the Wolfpack to the state final four, has another championship quality hoops squad.
But the Pack has only won it all twice in that stretch, the most recent coming in 2009. Last year’s team won 28 games, but stumbled in the semifinals against a better hustling Terrell County team at the Macon Centreplex.
“We were a bigger team, a more talented team, but they wanted it more,’’ Johnson said of the loss that he described as the “most painful’’ of his career.
Gone from that squad are standouts Tekele Cotton and Kennard Backman, but 6-foot-3 University of Georgia signee Kenneth Gaines is among three senior guards, including 5-foot-9 Jordan Coar and 6-foot Gerald Render, who start for the Pack. Johnson praised the trio’s leadership on and off the court.
“They’re not the most talented players as a group, but they’re the best group,’’ the coach explained. Coar averages around 9.5 points and 4.5 assists per game while Gaines is at 23 points, 8 rebounds and 2.5 steals per contest.
“I think after he made his decision to go to Georgia, it freed him up mentally to committing himself to get better,’’ Johnson said of Gaines.
The 6-foot-6 Lorenzo Carter (13 points, 7 rebounds) and 6-foot-5 Eric Locket (12 points, 9 rebounds), both sophomores, have been getting the job done in the paint. Fellow underclassmen, 5-foot-10 Berto Dryden and 5-foot-10 Khalen Pinkett, both sophomores, and 6-foot-4 freshman Matt Olson have substituted for the Pack’s mainly eight-man rotation.
Whitefield again scheduled strong competition outside of the region and state this year. In December, the Pack went 2-1, losing to the host school in the title game, at a tournament in Enterprise, Ala. They also went 1-2 in a Spartanburg, S.C. holiday tournament. Johnson said facing bigger and more physical programs in the tournaments has benefitted his team.
He also said the lessons learned from last year’s state semifinal loss to Terrell County has helped the Pack's strive for improvement, too.
“We learned it comes down to rebounding and the desire to compete,’’ Johnson said. “We didn’t mentally match their intensity and hopefully we learned from that.’’
If you know coaches James Gwyn and Randy McClure, you know their teams come to compete each game. McClure’s girls have won six of their last seven including a 12-point win over Kennesaw Mountain on Tuesday night.
Including in that stretch was a 51-49 win over tonight’s opponent, South Cobb, in the CHS Holiday Classic championship game in December. Led by the outstanding play of point guard Baylee Hawkins, the Lady Sparatns are 2-0 versus South Cobb this season, including a region-counting win early last month.
In the win over Kennesaw Mountain, Hawkins had 17 points and four assists. In recent region wins over Harrison (14 points, 5 steals, 3 assists) and Pebblebrook (16 points, 8 steals), the senior has excelled.
The Campbell boys are off a 67-64 overtime win over Kennesaw Moutain to win for just the second time in six games. But the Spartans come hard and play games tight as eight straight contests have been decided by eight or fewer points.
Both CHS squads play at Stephenson on Saturday in non-region games. Gwyn's Spartans will be looking for a bit of some payback after a heartbreaking triple-overtime loss at Stephenson last year in the opening round of the state playoffs.