Four boys and girl’s teams will set their sails Saturday and let the winds guide them to the coast, to Armstrong State in Savannah, for the semifinals of the Class AAA high school basketball tournament. The prize for their troubles: a spot in the championship game at Stegeman Coliseum at the University of Georgia on March 9 .
On the girl’s side, two Savannah area schools (Beach and Johnson) will take on two schools near Atlanta, Greater Atlanta Christian and Morgan County, which is located about 60 miles east of the capitol.
The Beach Lady Bulldogs will face the Lady Spartans of GAC, and both programs are used to high-level basketball. This game is shaping up to be a highlight of the weekend.
For GAC, the hopes for fourth blow-out victory in this tournament are alive and well. The Lady Spartans defeated Cedar Grove 72-43, Cook County 84-34 and Tattnall County 72-46 to reach this point. But GAC coach Lady Grooms is aware of the challenge posed by Beach.
"I have looked at some film, and I think they mirror us a little," said Grooms. "I feel we have better shooters, but they are very athletic and I feel it will be a great game and a good challenge for them."
All the talk has been about a Johnson-Beach rematch in the championship game. The two have split the four games they have played and swapped the No. 1 ranking all season. But Grooms and GAC, who have been ranked third nearly all season, are tired of that talk and feel, until now, their team has been left out of the story.
"People have all been talking that it was going to be Johnson and Beach from Day 1, and I think they probably misjudged us," Grooms said. "I don't know what is going to happen, of course, and it will be competitive, but I like our chances."
The Lady Bulldogs stormed through the first two rounds, but are lucky to be alive after holding a slim 46-45 lead at the final buzzer against Central-Macon.
Local knowledge could play big for the Savannah teams. Johnson and Beach, who have had plenty of experience at Armstrong’s Sports Center, know that all too well.
"Hopefully with us being in Savannah, in our own city, and being familiar with Armstrong Arena, I think we should compete well," said Johnson coach Brandon Lindsey.
The Lady Atomsmashers, who will face defending champion Morgan County on Saturday , are looking to have a better morning than they did last year before the semifinal game against, you guessed it, Morgan County.
"Last year, going to the final four game against Morgan County, we had a flat tire traveling to the game, that morning," Lindsey said. "We were on the side of the road for two hours, as soon as we got out of Chatham County. We got there two hours late and jumped right out of the bus ready to play. So eliminating the travel nightmares doesn't hurt one bit."
Regarding the challenge at hand, Lindsey is aware of Morgan County's talent and will be looking for a bit of revenge from last year's 65-49 loss.
"They are a tough team," Lindsey said. "They are the defending state champions, of course, so they are going to have that championship pedigree. We are looking for a competitive game. I am looking forward to this competitive matchup."
On the boy’s side of the bracket, most eyes will be on 2016 Class AA champion Pace Academy against defending Class AAAA champion Liberty County. Liberty has pretty much breezed to the semifinals behind 6-foot-4 junior guard Will Richardson and Auburn signee Davion Mitchell. Richardson, who is ranked 13th in scoring nationally, averages 31.5 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals a game. Mitchell adds 24 points, five rebounds and five assists per game.
Pace features Wendell Carter Jr., a Duke signee, who leads the Knights with 23.7 points, 15.8 rebounds and six blocks per game. Cater was one of the most highly recruited players in the nation.
In the other boys game, the Calhoun Yellow Jackets will face the Bulldogs of Morgan County. Calhoun has made a relatively easy run through the bracket, except for a close quarterfinal game against Jenkins, 65-60. The Yellow Jackets have defeated Hart County, 75-63, previously ranked Central-Macon, 67-61, and Jenkins.
Morgan County, the Class AAA defending champions, has breezed through the first three rounds by defeating Adairsville 71-40, Tattnall County 80-55 and Lovett 70-49.