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February 26, 2014

Devils hope to handle Hawks tonight

Tift-Hillgrove winner to advance to state semifinals

TIFTON — A year after their heartbreaking loss in the state quarterfinals, the Tift County Blue Devils have a chance to make amends tonight at 6 p.m. when they square off at home against the 23-7 Hillgrove Hawks in the Class AAAAAA state basketball playoffs.

"We cannot ask for a better situation," said Dr. Eric Holland, whose team is 26-3. "We said a prayer after the North Cobb game to be in this situation again."

After having to hold their breath against Lovejoy in a 60-57 win Tuesday, they face a team who had to do the same. The Hawks needed a 3-point basket from Jourdan Julian with 0.8 seconds left to squeak by Douglas County, 72-71.

Hillgrove, from Powder Springs and open since 2006, has already built up an impressive resume in its short lifetime. Last year's team knocked Brunswick out of the race and continued until they hit the state finals, where they were defeated by Norcross. This is their third appearance in the quarterfinals.

"They have a veteran group of kids. They returned four starters," Holland said.

The recent Georgia ice storm has meant that games in the state tournament have been back-to-back, with only Sunday off since last Thursday. Far from bemoaning the lack of preparation time Holland said, "I kind of like it this way." He feels the regular season and the diversity of the schedule has prepared them well.

Tift does have a game of experience against Hillgrove – in girls basketball. The Lady Hawks defeated them in the sweet 16 three years ago.

Reading the recap of Hillgrove's second round game versus Douglas may strike some chords of familiarity for locals. The Hawks started with a 25-5 run and had the same lead at intermission, 45-25.

Unlike the Devils, though, they actually fell behind in their game and were trailing in the final seven seconds after Douglas hit a layup to go up by two. Julian's miracle shot was three of his 18 points, second to Kyle Castlin's 26. Two other Hawks, B.J. Brown (14) and Keith Ray (11) also had double figures.

Playing Lovejoy, the Blue Devils were ahead 10 at the quarter and half and went up by 16 going into the final period.

"I thought we played well for 28 minutes," said Holland. He said he had emphasized the need for a full game to his defense. Points came from Tadric Jackson (21), Ladarius Stewart (15) and D.J. Bryant (11). Bryant and Stewart each made big free throws down the stretch, though the Devils missed two with three seconds left that could have put the game away.

However, he is not overly concerned with how they win their games.

"Our goal is to win by one," he said.

He knows that every contest will be close the rest of the way, and that some luck will be involved.

"There are eight good teams left," he said. "The beauty of it is the big three didn't play well, but we won the game."

A win tonight would put Tift in the state semifinals, their first time there since 2011 and seventh overall appearance. Their opponent would either be Berkmar or Norcross and would take place at Georgia Tech Saturday.

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