National recognition is beginning to trickle down on Upson-Lee’s undefeated boys basketball team.
USA Today put the Knights in its national top 25 this week following the leads of the MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25 and the Ballislife.com FAB 50, which both have Upson-Lee at No. 24.
That’s a nice honor for a middle-sized high school team that probably hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves in its own state, where the Knights’ 55-game winning streak ranks among the 10 best runs in Georgia boys basketball history.
Upson-Lee is no secret in its hometown, about 50 miles west of Macon.
Thomaston had a parade for the team after its 2017 state title. That was the school's first team state championship in any sport. The chamber of commerce recognized the Knights at an awards banquet, and several local churches and clubs have honored the team since.
Home games are packed these days. Last Friday night, so many Knights fans traveled to Spalding for a region game that the fire marshal had to close the gym early, leaving 300 fans outside. Upson-Lee won 75-39.
‘’Our fans have taken on this team as their own,’’ said Jim Fowler, an Upson County school historian and a former basketball coach himself at old R.E. Lee High School. ‘’They have created a unique togetherness in our community, and everybody talks about them all of the time. As an old coach, I know that the winning streak could end on any night, but it has drawn our community together in a way that I haven't seen in a long, long time.’’
When Fowler still on the sidelines in the 1970s, Upson County had a nice tradition in basketball. In 1965, a little city school called Yatesville won the Class C championship. Upson High was a state runner-up in 1974 and 1979.
R.E. Lee made the semifinals in AAA in 1975, which was then the highest classification. R.E. Lee remained prominent the rest of the decade under Fowler and a star player named Darrell Lockhart, a 6-foot-9 center who went on to play at Auburn with Charles Barkley, then briefly in the NBA and for 15 years overseas.
Lockhart is now the team’s head coach, the one who brought back the glory days, and then some.
But it took some time.
Lockhart returned to his hometown in 1999 and became Upson-Lee's head coach of in 2005. He always fielded competitive teams, but Upson-Lee – formed in 1992 as a merger of R.E. Lee and Upson - had never won a state-playoff game in girls or boys basketball until Lockhart’s 2015 squad broke through to the Class AAAA quarterfinals.
Then in 2017, Upson-Lee went 32-0. That was only the sixth undefeated boys basketball team in Georgia this century. This year’s defending champions are essentially the same group. The 2017 team graduated four seniors, only one who started.
‘’It’s a team of guys that have played together since they were wearing diapers practically,’’ Lockhart said. “They’ve formed a bond. They just play well together. They were taught well, and they keep taking off, doing the things we’ve asked them to do.’’
The centerpiece to the team Tye Fagan, a combination guard/forward. The reigning AAAA player of the year, Fagan is averaging 25.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.0 steals. He has signed with Middle Tennessee.
‘’He’s a phenomenal athlete, and it’s hard to guard him,’’ Lockhart said. “It will be a real surprise to me if anybody can just stop him. He’s only 6-3, but he’s long and he stretches real well. He’s crafty around the basket.’’
The center/power forward is Travon Walker, a 6-foot-6, 255-pound junior who averages 12.3 points and 11.1 rebounds. Walker is a top-150 national recruit as a football defensive tackle.
Upson-Lee has had only two games closer than five points, one against Millbrook of North Carolina, the other against Corbin of Kentucky. Walker had 21 rebounds in each of those games.
‘’I’ve yet to find anybody who can shut him down either,’’ Lockhart said. “He’s great rebounder, defender and shot blocker and with a good shot.’’
Zyrice Scott (11.8 points per game, 5.7 assists) is the point guard. Cameron Traylor, a new starter this year, has made 46 of 107 three-point attempts. JaCorey Smith, a part-time starter last year, can play and defend multiple positions. Key players off the bench are Jarrett Adderton, a versatile athlete and good defender, and Alejandro Lockhart, the coach’s son, a good shooter and rebounder with some size (6-3) on a relatively small team.
Upson-Lee has defeated the No. 1-ranked teams in AAAAA (Warner Robins) and A private (St. Francis), both by over 10 points. In the Warner Robins game, Fagan had 33 points and six blocked shots.
Upson-Lee also has beaten Huffman of Birmingham, ranked as the No. 2 team overall in Alabama by MaxPreps. Huffman had a top-20 national ranking at the time. Upson-Lee won the City of the Palms tournament in Fort Meyers, Fla., in December with victories over three other out-of-state teams.
‘’We are can play with anybody, no question,’’ Lockhart said. “You can tell in the summer when you play against the big schools. We played pretty well against those guys. We don’t have the real huge guys, but we’re able to compete with anybody.’’
Fowler calls it a once-in-a-generation team for Upson County. He compliments the Knights on their hustle and character, noting that all make good grades. “Not only do they win, but they do it the right way,’’ he said. “They are a true team - unselfish, disciplined, well-mannered, focused and respectful of their opponent.’’
Fowler admits he still watches the games with a coach’s eye, looking for corrections that need to be made. But he struggles to find any.
‘’I try to be very open and somewhat critical in my evaluations of this bunch, but they have won me over,’’ Fowler said. “It's not the game I coached in the ‘70s, and I probably couldn't coach this kind of basketball. These kids play at a different level.’’
If Upson-Lee successfully defends its state title, the winning streak will stand at 63, which might be tied for the third-longest in state history. State basketball records aren’t well-kept, but it is known that the state record belongs to Randolph-Clay, which won 90 straight into the 2015-06 season. Randolph-Clay broke the record of 78 set by a small South Georgia school called Irwinville in the early 1950s.
Research by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has unearthed only three other boys basketball winning steaks that beat Upson-Lee’s current run. Those are the 63 by Woodbury (ended in 1985), the 57 by Decatur (1983) and the 56 by College Park (1976).
‘’We try to shy away from it as a team because our mind is on the bigger prize,'' Lockhart said of the winning streak, ''but people are talking about it, and the city is proud of the team and what we’ve done, as it should be. It’s a great accomplishment.’’
Longest Georgia winning streaks (boys basketball):
90 – Randolph-Clay (ended 2006)
78 – Irwinville (1951)
63 – Woodbury (1985)
57 – Decatur (1983)
56 – College Park (1976)
55 – Upson-Lee (current)
50 – Elberton (1957)
50 – Perry (1963)
45 – Fort Valley (1953)
43 – Columbia (2007)
42- Newton County (1965)
Notes: They were researched with the help of Becky Taylor at the Georgia Basketball Project, MaxPreps, other online sources and through coaches of past undefeated state champions. Please note any omissions below.