If you are looking for state title contenders as we head into region play next week, you have come to the right place. Several Class AAA teams have separated themselves from the competition and seem to be looking down from their lofty perches at the top. But, as the old saying goes, anything is possible come tournament time.
On the boys side, you cannot ignore the top-ranked Morgan County Bulldogs. It has been noted that Morgan’s only loss came against No. 2 Class AAAAAAA Newton, one of the better teams in the state, by four points. It did not affect the Bulldogs No. 1 ranking.
The Bulldogs lead in the Region 8-AAA standings (8-0) over Hart County and Monroe Area (5-4), and have not been challenged since the Newton game. Morgan moved past Hart County 56-38 Jan. 23, East Jackson 69-41 Jan. 26 and Jackson County 71-41 Tuesday .
Its two top scorers, who have been under the radar in terms of recognition, have put up impressive numbers all season and are shooting lights out from the field.
Alec Woodard, a 6-foot-2 junior guard, is averaging 19.4 points per game on 131-of-267 shooting (49 percent). Tyrin Lawrence, a 6-3 junior guard, adds 19.1 points per game on 133-of-237 shooting (56 percent). Both dual-threat guards and can score from inside or outside with ease. Woodward is 46-of-119 (39 percent) from beyond the 3-point line; Lawrence is 38-of-89 (43 percent).
Teammates Stevin Green, a 5-9 junior guard, and Anthony Cooper, a 6-4 senior forward, add to the depth to the Morgan County offense. Green is averaging nine points per game on 69-of-165 (42 percent) shooting; Cooper adds 8.5 points per game on 75-of-139 (54 percent) shooting.
Stats aside, the most important thing to consider about Morgan County is its experience. The Bulldogs have been to the state title game each of the past four seasons and have won two titles (2013-14, 2015-16). The goal for any team of that caliber is to find a way back to the final game, and for Morgan County, a team that feels overlooked and underappreciated, that’s just business as usual. I suspect Morgan County will survive, at the least, to the semifinals, unless there is a bracket-shattering upset.
Elsewhere, two ranked teams are battling for control of Savannah as No. 2 Johnson (12-0) and No. 3 Jenkins (10-2) lead the Region 3 standings and have traded blows all season.
The two programs have played three times, with Johnson taking two of the three games. On Dec. 8 , the Atom Smashers defeated Jenkins 67-54, and it looked as if Johnson had the better team. But 10 days later , Jenkins returned the favor with an 88-52 victory. The blowout signaled that two high-caliber programs exist in Savannah, and both should be considered for a playoff run. On Jan. 23, Johnson avenged the big loss with a seven-point (67-60) victory against Jenkins at home.
In last year’s tournament, Johnson had the unfavorable draw of being placed in the top-left quadrant of the bracket with eventual champion Pace Academy. The Atom Smashers lost to Pace in the second round, 49-41. Jenkins, on the other side of the bracket, made it to the quarterfinals after beating Cook County and Cedar Grove in the first two rounds. In the quarterfinal game, the Warriors lost to Calhoun, 65-60.
This season, both teams have the potential for deep runs into the bracket.
On the girls side, Franklin County (24-0, 9-0) debuts as the No. 2 team this week in the rankings behind top-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian. Although its flawless record is impressive, it’s difficult to tell what the Lady Lions’ postseason stock is worth, judging by last year’s tournament appearance. In last year’s first round, Franklin County, the No. 2 seed from Region 8, fell to the Region 6 No. 3 seeded Ringgold, 53-52. The semi-upset sent the Lady Lions home, by their judgment, a few rounds too soon. This season will provide a chance for Franklin County to prove its worth among the best teams in the state, and when looking at the string of blowout victories Franklin has racked up, this postseason could, and should, be vastly different.
Speaking of top-ranked GAC, the Lady Spartans likely will enter the tournament as the top seed from Region 7, and with reflections on last year’s tournament, expect GAC to play with laser focus.
Like Morgan County on the boys side, the GAC girls will be entering the postseason with a scorebook-error-sized chip on their shoulders after falling to Beach in overtime in the semifinals last year. The confusion surrounding the end of the game stemmed from a random point that was taken away from GAC in the third quarter which would have given the Lady Spartans a one-point victory at the end of regulation, instead of an overtime period with the game tied.
With all of GAC’s momentum gone, eventual-champion Beach took advantage in overtime and outscored the Lady Spartans 10-1 in the extra period. Following the game, the GAC scorebook was compared to the GHSA scorebook, and each were compared to the video replay. Needless to say, there were some discrepancies. In the ensuing days, the GHSA determined that a scoring error “might have occurred,” but Beach advanced, GAC stayed home.
More recently, third-ranked Beach (20-2, 10-1) dropped a rivalry game against No. 6 Johnson-Savannah, 50-45, Jan. 26. The victory gave 2017 state runner-up Johnson (11-1) a one-game lead in the Region 3 standings.
Last year, Beach beat Johnson, 59-44, in the championship game, which marked the fifth meeting between the programs last season. This season, look for both programs to make a deep run, and if the stars align and the ball bounces the right way, we could see another all-Savannah championship game again this season.