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February 20, 2014

Devils, Lady Devils begin state play

TIFTON — One year ago, the Tift County Blue Devils and Lady Devils were preparing for the first of three nights of state basketball tournaments in their own gym. Both teams have made state again this year, but are starting their schedules far away.

The Devils (24-3), who won their region for the second straight year, will be starting state against the Tri-Cities Bulldogs (13-12) Saturday at the friendly confines of The Palace. The Lady Devils (12-15) have to go a little patch of land between Atlanta and College Park to play the Westlake Lady Lions (22-4) tonight. Both games start at 6 p.m.

State was to have started at the beginning of the week, but Winter Storm Pax brought everything but peace to north Georgia, forcing nearly all prep athletics to grind to a halt. The GHSA tentatively set a start date of Wednesday last week, but after further discussion decided to wait a bit longer.

The change has thrown the entire schedule for a loop. Far from being spaced out, successful schools will have to play four rounds in eight days. The only day without a game is Sunday.

That has been just fine to Tift's coaches. Region 1 was the only tournament to finish by the original cutoff date and both staffs have had time to go scouting.

"Courtney (Mitchell) went out [Tuesday] night," said girls coach Julie Conner. Her task was to watch the title game between Westlake and Douglas County, a game the Lady Lions won by seven. Dr. Eric Holland, in charge of the boys, said he had had a chance to see Tri-Cities.

Even so, strategy has been admittedly rushed.

"One day prep plans," said Holland.

According to the numbers attached to the teams in the bracket, Region 3's boys tournament was one of upsets. The semifinals saw the top two seeds — Westlake and Tri-Cities — go down to defeat to the Nos. 3 and 4.

Holland puts little stock in those numbers. "When I went over and watched, any of them could have won," he said.

There are some similarities between Tift's opponents. Both opened in 1988, created because of dwindling attendances at several Fulton County schools. Westlake's name is a portmanteau of the former Westwood and Lakeshore. Tri-Cities is a combination of Russell, College Park, Hapeville and Woodland, the latter itself being a combo of Headland and Briarwood.

Westlake, under head coach Hilda Hankerson, has been a mainstay in the postseason. The Lady Devils have made it an impressive four straight years, but Westlake has gone seven. The Lady Lions have no state title banners on their wall, never having advanced beyond the semis. Their last time making it that far was 2010.

Despite their record and 4th place finish at region, Conner believes her squad is peaking at the right time.

"Going to state, that's a thrill and anything can happen now," she said.

Needing to beat Valdosta to even get to state, they won by 18. They were within a point of Brunswick in the 2nd half in the region semis and lost to Colquitt County in the consolation by two.

Westlake's size worries her. "They're very good. They're big! Four 6-foot girls."

Alexis Johnson has been the team's scoring leader. Conner said she had another double-double during region. Brecklyn Greene is not far behind in the scoring column with Staceyanna Murrell pulling down the rebounds and occasionally offering a bit of outside shooting help. Tatianya Smith and Audrey McElhaney have shared point guard duties and Dail Adaway, having recovered from a knee injury last summer, has had to fill the void left by Dorian Jordan, who hurt her knee in January. Conner said the team has especially missed Jordan.

Tri-Cities played in last year's state tournament, their first in six years. They made it to the second round before being defeated by Hillgrove.

They are both new and familiar to the Blue Devils. Holland said it was the first time any of his teams have played them, but they have played Tift once, in 2005. In that game, the Devils won 50-46 to advance to the quarterfinals.

The first player who stood out to Holland on the Bulldogs' roster was Shawntrez Davis. Davis, listed as a 6'8" junior, already has offers from several Division I-A schools, according to ESPN, including Georgia, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Maryland. "We have to figure out to defend him."

A week off has been beneficial. "We're looking pretty good," he said. Tadric and Tyrie Jackson were both feeling under the weather last week, he said and Nate Thomas had been playing with a heavy heart after suffering the loss of his grandfather.

Tadric Jackson, who was named co-Player of the Year for the region, has been the scoring ace for the team. D.J. Bryant and Preston Horne were also named to the first team with Ladarius Stewart as a second teamer and Tyrie Jackson getting honorable mention.

This is their 21st straight year in state. That run has included one state championship (1996), one time as a runner-up and three more trips to the semifinals.

They were an eyelash from making it four times last year, but lost a lead to North Cobb and ultimately the game, 68-63.

That loss has been motivation as of late. Holland said their plans were to win region and get a guarantee of at least three home games, provided they keep winning, and keep going.

"We have to remove that sour taste from last year," he said.

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