Tifton Gazette

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December 19, 2013

Big blue basketball brawl

Jackets invade Tift County High arena tonight to face Devils

TIFTON — Dr. Eric Holland has a plan. The Tift County Blue Devils mentor wants to have a series of games between south Georgia's finest basketball schools and the traditional Savannah prep powers.

Right now, the plan is only in its first phase, the first ever Friendly City Shoot-Out. There are two games Saturday evening, one between the Thomasville Bulldogs and Jenkins Warriors at 6 p.m. and another featuring his Devils against the Savannah Blue Jackets, slotted to start at 7:30.

If top schools out of Chatham County were his goal, it is hard to find one more powerful than Savannah.

"They're really good," he said. "They have a 6-8 kid in the middle and they're the No. 1 team in the state [in Class AAA]."

The two are familiar with one another. As part of the McDonald's Invitational last year, Tift won 65-55 in a hotly contested matchup. The Devils would ultimately go to the state quarterfinals, where they fell to North Cobb. Savannah made it all the way to the state finals, where they were defeated by city rival Johnson, denying them their 14th state championship. It was the second straight runner-up finish for them; in 2012, it was Milton who defeated them.

Times have not changed for the Blue Devils, who hold a 7-1 record, though there have been roster changes since last season. The Kansas Jayhawks claimed Brannen Greene while Donell Tuff went to Gardner-Webb. Future Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket Tadric Jackson has naturally stepped up even further, averaging 22 points per game. Tuff's slot at center has gone to a rookie, Preston Horne. What Horne lacks in age, he makes up for in everything else.

"He's one of the best freshmen I've ever coached," said Holland. "He's the total package." Horne, who has also been playing AAU ball, is already receiving national attention from Division I programs. "He's one of the top recruits now," he said.

Horne has impressed his coach with his work ethic. "Preston is a gym rat and he's a humble kid."

Savannah has been having an outstanding year, too. They are undefeated, including a victory over Johnson. Other wins have been over Lucy Laney, Josey and Beach. None of them are strangers to success.

Holland is especially excited at playing them again as he feels that his squad is in fine form.

"Offensively, we believe in what we're doing. We're playing well, even hitting free throws." More bodies have been on the floor this year for him. That is his usual strategy, but admits he got away from it some last year.

"Our goal is to play 15 guys in the 1st quarter. This year, we're putting guys on the floor. It reminds me of that final four team (in 2011)."

After the Savannah contest, the schedule won't get easier. Monday, they will be playing Orlando's Lake Highland Prep in the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla. Lake Highland was 7-2 going into their game Friday night.

The other game Saturday is between Thomasville and Jenkins. Football playoffs and a schedule of bigger schools have caused the Bulldogs to start slow, but their offense has started to come along.

Jenkins is undefeated. Their victories include Effingham County and Wilkinson County.

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