There is a beauty, a romance, in the sound of a basketball bouncing on the dusty wood planks of an empty gymnasium. Each board sounds different, some more alive than others. The sound of the ball going through the net can be heard in the rafters. The squeaking of the basketball shoes of a player practicing his or her shot against the only imaginary friend he or she has ever known, the invisible defender, are deafening.
Well, it won't be that way this week. The floors have been polished; the defenders are real, and the gyms certainly will not be empty. Class AAA state competition has arrived at the quarterfinals with 16 outstanding girls and boys teams trying to advance to the Final Four.
On the boys side, the highlight game has No. 1 Westside-Macon at No. 2 Pace Academy, which features two of the best players in the nation. Pace Academy won the right to have a home-court advantage after winning a coin toss, but if the coaches had their say, the game would be played in a different setting.
"I mean, I love the home-court advantage and all," said Pace Academy coach Demetrius Smith. "But the only thing is, when you have a team as good as Westside-Macon, they are going to feed off of the crowd, regardless. They will not be scared, so to say. But I wish it was at a neutral site where both teams have to travel. That forces both sides to play a game. Not at home. No sense of the building or whatever."
There were similar thoughts from his opponent.
"I am not a big fan of two No. 1 seeds having to flip a coin to see who gets to host," said Westside coach Josh Grube. "I think this game should be at a neutral site. I don't know how you reward one team home-court advantage because they won a coin toss. I don't think that's right. But there is nothing we can do about it, and we gotta go play the game at their place. Our guys will be ready to play."
Westside, the No. 1 seed from Region 4, features junior Khavon Moore, a 6-foot-8 shooting guard who is averaging 23.3 points, 10 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.8 blocks per game. Moore, who has not committed, has been ranked as the top junior recruit in the nation.
Pace Academy, the No. 1 seed from Region 5, is led by 6-10 senior and Duke signee Wendell Carter Jr. Carter averages 23.7 points, 15.8 rebounds and 5.8 blocks per game and was ranked as the top senior recruit this season.
But Westside's Grube cautions that there will be more on the floor for both teams.
"I don't know if you do stop Wendell Carter, but we are going to do our best to contain him," said Grube. "We have to make sure the other guys on his team don't beat you, as well. That is kind of our game plan going in. We don't want the other guys on the team to hurt us. We know he is a good player, and we are going to have to live with him getting his."
Pace's Smith said Grube might be on to something.
"The other players are good enough to play their role at a high level," said Smith. "(Carter) wants his touches, but he also wants to make sure his teammates get easy shots. He commands the ball and is always going to make the right play with ball. So everyone else needs to be ready for what he is going to do."
The keys of the game?
For Pace, let Carter dominate. For Westside, force Carter to win the game without much help.
Here are the other boys games this week:
Islands at Liberty County: The defending champion Liberty County Panthers are a high-scoring offensive program from Hinesville (near Savannah). Liberty has scored more than 100 points five times this season, including a 121-point performance against Long County and a 120-point performance against Bradwell Institute. Islands, however, might have answers in Trae Broadnax (19.7 points per game), Justin Cave (18.5 points per game), and Hugh Durham (12.2 points per game).
Lovett at Morgan County: Lovett defeated Greater Atlanta Christian, 62-58, in the first round, then cooled off a hot Crisp County team, 71-69, in the second round. Morgan County moved past Adairsville 71-40 in the first round and Tattnall County 82-56 in the second round.
Jenkins at Calhoun: Jenkins beat Cook County, 75-65, in the first round and Cedar Grove 71-56 in the second round. Calhoun moved past Hart County, 75-63, in the first round and Central-Macon, 67-61, in the second round.
On the girls side of the classification, all of the focus has been on a possible fifth rematch between the two Savannah programs, Beach and Johnson, which have swapped the top spot in the rankings all season. The two teams have traded blows four times and split the games. Neither has lost to anyone else, leaving this question hanging: Can anyone beat either of these two teams?
The answer, I think, is Greater Atlanta Christian.
The Lady Spartans, whose last loss came Jan. 21 to Holy Innocents', have yet to be challenged in the first two rounds, defeating Cedar Grove 72-43 in the first round and Cook County 84-34 in the second.
Robyn Benton, Tamiah Lewis and Taylor Sutton have combined to average nearly 43 points per game. Add in Ciara Reynolds, and you can bump the average to nearly 53 points per game. Tattnall County, which plays GAC on Tuesday , has scored 53 points or less in 18 games this season. You do the math.
The other girls games this week include:
Beach at Central-Macon: Beach ran away with the first-round game against Dougherty, 61-33, and defeated Redan by 20 points in the second round. Central-Macon handled Liberty County, 55-41, in the first round and Hart County, 59-45, in the second.
Dawson County at Morgan County: Defending champions Morgan County was not challenged in the first round, defeating Sonoraville 61-26. The Lady Bulldogs then took care of Pierce County, 56-39. Dawson County beat Lovett 72-61 in the first round and Monroe 63-53 in the second.
Peach County at Johnson-Savannah: Johnson dismantled Crisp County 79-27 in the first round and North Hall 54-38 in the second. Peach County beat Long County 60-30 in the first round, then squeaked by Haralson County 56-55 in the second.