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February 24, 2014

Blue Devils battle Lovejoy tonight in 2nd round

TIFTON — The Tift County Blue Devils have been giving their fans plenty of love and joy over the season. That combination will be tested tonight when they host Lovejoy at 6 p.m. in the second round of the Class AAAAAA state tournament.

The Devils (25-3), winners of the region championship for the second straight year, made it into the second round after a 70-49 win over the Tri-Cities Bulldogs in the first round Saturday.

Lovejoy escaped South Cobb in the first round, 58-56. South Cobb, a 5-win team coming in, had recently been on a tear, having upset two opponents in their region tournament. South Cobb almost made it in this game, too, but missed a chance at overtime when a shot was ruled to have come after the buzzer.

"They're big, athletic [and] strong," said Dr. Eric Holland. "They have good guard play … they're really long."

Indeed, the Wildcats have plenty of height. Every player on their roster is listed as being taller than 6 feet.

The two squads do have a brief history, each with one win over the other. Their last meeting was in 1999, when the 'Cats won by eight in the 2nd round. The victory came in the state championship year of 1996. Lovejoy was their quarterfinals opponent and they slipped by with an 84-82 win.

Saturday saw the usual suspects come through, but a few names stuck out in particular to Holland.

"Ladarius (Stewart) and D.J. (Bryant) got us out of the gate," he said. Bryant had three 3-pointers in the opening quarter alone and had five total for the game. Stewart had eight points in the 1st half, then exploded for six more in the 3rd. He had 17 points overall, enough to tie him with Tadric Jackson for the team lead.

Referring to Stewart, he said "Boo's the X-factor." By the end of the 3rd, they had a 12-point lead and Jackson had taken over the game. "Once we get the lead, we feel he's the best player in the state." Jackson's slam dunks, including one over a leaping 6'4 Christopher Rogers, evaporated any momentum the Bulldogs had left.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game was the Devils' defense.

Emmanuel Rainey had 16 points for Tri-Cities. No other player scored more than six. That includes Shawntrez Davis, who has received offers from several schools, including Georgia Tech, Clemson and Georgia. He was held to four points, something Holland credits to both his assistants and Nate Thomas.

"The difference was Nate Thomas," he said. "Nate answered the bell and held him way below his average."

Tickets are $7 to the game.

A win would put the Blue Devils back in action Thursday night, where they would host the winner of the game between Douglas County and Hillgrove.

Holland is certainly looking forward to the opportunity of potentially hosting another round. That had been their plan, he said, but knows he cannot look too far ahead.

"Every game is a one-game series."

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