Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Wrapping up basketball superlatives

In reviewing the just-completed season, it’s fair to say that the two teams that played the best all year were the ones who walked away with the championship trophies. 

The Warner Robins boys won the school’s first basketball title. The veteran team played at a high level all year, featured a real star in Nelson Phillips (a Georgia State signee) and beat all contenders. The Demons survived two great attacks from Lithonia and Miller Grove, a pair of battle-tested foes. Plus, the Demons gave us a finish that was worthy of any network highlight show. Coach Jamaal Garman had encouraged his players to become “legends.” Mission accomplished.

The Buford girls won their third championship in the last four seasons. The Wolves are deep, talented and tenacious. They weren’t able to push or bully Flowery Branch with their aggressive defensive pressure in the state championship game, but that’s probably because the Falcons had already played them three times and knew what was coming. Buford featured a great player in Tory Ozment, who scored when she had to score and settled things down when they needed settling. 

Breakthrough Seasons

Boys: Starr’s Mill had never won a region championship. This season the Panthers went 22-8, won the Region 3 championship and reached the state quarterfinals. They’ll miss senior Drew Hudson’s 18 points next season, but there’s enough young talent on the roster to ensure the Panthers will be a player in 2018-19. 

Girls: Lithia Springs (18-10) fielded a young team that grew exponentially as the team went along. The Lions won the Region 6 tournament and won their first-round game in the tournament, giving them an eight-game winning streak. Lithia was taken out by veteran Flowery Branch in the second round, but not before coach David Mills’ team crafted a memorable season. 

Most Improved

Boys: Hiram (23-10) was a great story all season. The Hornets lived in the shadow of Villa Rica for much of the season, until they met in the regular season and ended the Wildcats’ long winning streak. Hiram then beat Villa Rica in the Region 7 championship game and went on to reach the semifinals, where they hung with Miller Grove for most of the game.

Girls: Second-year coach Yolanda Redmond helped the Miller Grove girls flip their fortunes this year. The senior-laden Wolverines went 15-12, a five-win improvement from the previous season. The Wolvies won their first-round playoff game over Jackson, their first state tournament win since 2015. 

Best Underclassmen

Boys: Marcus Watson of Buford has everything going in his favor. He’s physically gifted, doesn’t mind working hard and doesn’t shy away from a big moment. Watson will have a lot of young parts around him next year, so he’ll likely need to carry more of the load. He will be the plum recruit and will have his pick of any school. (No one wants him more than Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner.)

Girls: Deasia Merrill of Villa Rica is a three-time all-state player who can do everything. The 6-2 forward has carried her team for three years and helped the Wildcats reach the semifinals this season before being eliminated. Merrill is on a lot of watchlists and should be one of the top stretch forwards for the Class of 2019. 

Best Coaching Job (Non-Champion Division)

Boys: Travis Williams took Maynard Jackson to a new level this season. The former Georgia State player and college coach got his guys to buy into a team concept and the result was the school’s first Region 6 title. Williams was able to create a system that featured Marquavis Carter (23.1 points per game) without making a one-man team. Williams is also changing the culture at the program and creating something that should endure. 

Girls: Kathy Walton lost everything at Southwest DeKalb from a team that went to the championship game in 2017. The Panthers survived a very demanding schedule and continued to get better. The result: They upset Arabia Mountain in the Region 5 championship game and reached the second round of the playoffs. 

Favorite for Next Year

Boys: Columbia picked the wrong time to slump, losing its Region 5 semifinal and consolation and getting bounced by Jackson in the first round of the state tournament. However, the Eagles finished second during the regular season and were playing well. Most of those guys come back for coach Phil McCrary, including 6-8 forward Josh Taylor. Look for Columbia to challenge Miller Grove for the championship.  

Girls: It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Buford in that role, but the Wolves lost a ton of good, experienced players. Still, until someone else stands up and raises their hand, you’ve got to beat the champ. 

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