The Greater Atlanta Christian girls and boys basketball teams will try for a state championship sweep Thursday when the state finals are held in Macon, but the attempt will not be an easy one.
The GAC girls will play against a talented Johnson-Savannah team that returns to the state title game for the second consecutive season. The GAC boys will play Jenkins, another talented Savannah team, that eliminated favorite Morgan County last weekend.
Here is a team-by-team look at the four remaining programs trying to win state titles:
Greater Atlanta Christian
Last season, GAC lost to Lovett in the first round, 62-58, and headed home with a sour taste in its mouth. GAC has stormed through the bracket this season and is in the hunt for its eighth boys basketball title. If the semifinal victory against Morgan County was an indication of GAC’s ability to stick with the plan during a tightly contested matchup, look for GAC to hang on if the title game stays close.
“It was a roller-coaster,” said GAC coach David Eaton of his team’s 73-71 overtime victory against Morgan County in the semifinals. “I’m just proud of how tough we are. It was tough to come out and get that big lead to start the game. That’s just our guys being ready to play and not being scared to come out and knock Morgan County on their heels. But, it’s even harder when a team starts coming back on you, especially with the talent that Morgan County has. We just kept answering back. I think it speaks of the mental toughness of our guys that we responded every time Morgan County responded to us.”
Against Morgan, GAC had every opportunity to turn the game into a blowout after opening an 11-0 cushion that was highlighted by hot shooting from beyond the arc. Hunter McIntosh, a 6-foot-2 junior point guard, was responsible for five of GAC’s six 3-pointers early in the game and finished with 30 points to lead the Spartans. Teammate Ben Sheppard, a 6-4 junior guard, added 16 points, and Roy Dixon scored 11.
“I think this new era, whether it be me leading the charge or Coach (David) Eaton,” McIntosh told the AJC after the game. “I think that we are going to start a new era and a new legacy at GAC.”
Jenkins has one state championship to its credit after defeating Morgan County by two points, 62-60, in 2015. This season, the Warriors are as poised as ever to grab their second.
Jenkins’ road to the championship has been tightly contested following its first-round rout of Jackson, 59-39. In the second round, Jenkins slid past Cook 52-49 to earn a quarterfinal berth against Cedar Grove. The Warriors took a 72-65 victory and momentum into the semifinal game against Westside-Macon.
In the semis, Jenkins took a 26-22 halftime lead, but the slim four-point lead might as well have been 30, because the Warriors looked completely in control. Westside proved its worth by tying the game at 26 early in the third quarter, and Jenkins had a 35-33 lead entering the fourth.
“All year long, we have been preparing for games like this,” Jenkins head coach Bakari Bryant told the AJC after the game. “We have been running our three-minute practices, scenario practices. Our last couple of games it has kind of been like this, so we were really prepared for this moment. The thing about me and my kids, they were able to keep their composure, they were able to have poise and they were able to stay focused.”
After coming off a similar semifinal game as GAC, focus will be paramount for Jenkins, and a trio of seniors will lead the way. Tyrone Scott, a 6-3 small forward, is averaging nearly 15 points, six rebounds and three steals per game. Tre’ Mays, a 5-foot-10 guard, is averaging nearly 14 points and three rebounds per game. Sai Fisher, a 6-2 point guard, is averaging 11 points per game with 4.5 rebounds and four assists.
Greater Atlanta Christian
The Lady Spartans viewed this season as a redemption tour after falling to eventual-champion Beach in the semifinal last season.
This year, GAC weathered a knee injury to its star player, Auburn signee Robyn Benton, and is in the hunt for its ninth girls basketball championship. Once in the tournament, the resilient Lady Spartans took advantage of blowouts in the opening two rounds against Monroe Area (70-39) and Coahulla Creek (68-28) which set up the the long-awaited rematch against Beach, this time in the quarterfinals. GAC jumped to a 14-5 lead after the first quarter and secured a 29-20 lead at halftime. Beach got the best of GAC in the third quarter by a slim 9-7 margin before GAC secured the victory with a 19-16 run in the final quarter.
The victory set up a semifinal game with previously unbeaten Franklin County (30-0). From the opening tip, the Lady Lions challenged GAC on both ends of the floor. GAC took a 12-6 lead after the first quarter before a 17-7 Franklin County run in the second quarter gave the Lady Lions a 23-19 lead at halftime. GAC took control in the fourth quarter, taking the lead on a 6-0 run, with baskets from MaryMartha Turner, Caria Reynolds and Maya Timberlake.
“It’s our maturity. And they are listening,” GAC coach Lady Grooms said of her team’s comeback after being behind in the first quarter in the semis. “It’s very difficult in high school to come back when you’re down, because they can hold the ball and can do all of that. I took a chance (in the fourth quarter) and said, ‘Let’s start trapping; let’s start playing D; let’s trap the ball.”
The Spartans have three players averaging in double-figures – Taylor Sutton (17 points), Reynolds (12 points) and Turner (10 points).
The Lady Atom Smashers are in the hunt for their first-ever girls state basketball championship after weathering close games in the tournament, with the exception of its first-round rout of Rutland, 60-33.
In the second round, Johnson moved past Monroe 64-57 to earn a quarterfinal berth against Region 5 No. 1 Lovett. Johnson won 52-46 on the road and turned its sites toward a semifinal matchup against Tattnall County. The Lady Atom Smashers took a 9-8 lead over Tattnall after the first quarter and pushed the lead to 21-12 at the half. Johnson managed a 43-33 victory to earn the final berth against GAC.
“We had a bunch of girls step up tonight and play big for us,” Johnson coach Brandon Lindsey told the Savannah Morning News following the semifinal victory. “On any given night, we have that kind of team where anyone can step up, and tonight it was a few key contributions that were enough to keep us going.”
Johnson has three players averaging double-figures in scoring. Senior Sy’Marieona Williams, a 5-foot-3 point guard, is averaging 17 points, 3.5 rebounds, three steals and 2.5 assists per game. J’Mya Cutter, a 5-9 junior guard, is averaging nearly 12 points per game with six rebounds, 4.3 assists and three steals. Jasmine Thompson, a 5-7 junior guard, is scoring 11 points per game with 8.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals.
For the second season, Johnson is playing the final game, an, after falling to Beach 59-44 last season, the Lady Atom Smashers are poised for a state title.
"We can’t do anything about last season,” Lindsey told the Savannah Morning News. “We can’t go back and take the rings off (Beach’s) fingers. We can’t go and get the 2017 trophy out of their trophy case. All we can do is go and get our own. We have to play hard and play our best basketball game of the season on Thursday to do that. We’ll be ready.”