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March 6, 2014

Devils down to their final game

TIFTON — Dr. Eric Holland does not have the jitters. His Tift County Blue Devils are individually playing in their first state basketball championship game Saturday night at 8:45 p.m. at the Macon Centreplex against the Wheeler Wildcats. For him, this is old hat.

"I'm excited like always, but never nervous," he said. He believes the team will follow his example. "Our preparation has been good and our emotions are intact. This is the most focused I've seen them."

Holland has two previous finales under his belt from when he was at Turner County. They lost to Hancock Central and Whitefield Academy in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

The Blue Devils (28-3) are playing in their first title contest since 2004 and their fourth overall. They won the state championship in 1996 over Beach and have been runners-up in 1954 (Druid Hills), 1961 (Headland) and 2004 (South Gwinnett).

Their opponent Saturday is Wheeler (30-5). Wheeler's name might be familiar; they faced each other in 1996 in the semifinals when Tift was No. 1 in the rankings and Wheeler was No. 2. That game was a blowout, the Devils winning by 23 points.

The Wildcats are highly regarded again this year. A preseason No. 17-ranked team nationally by MaxPreps, Holland refers to their top players as the "big four." He has his own group he calls the "big three."

Looking at a roster, the names who immediately stand out are Maleek Catchings and the Abdur-Rahim twins, Malik and Bilal. Athletics are deep in their genes, but they are not part of the big four.

He said "the kids you have to look out for" are Elijah Staley, Avery Patterson, Jaylen Brown and Daniel Giddens. Brown had 21 in the semifinals win against Pebblebrook. Staley had 17, Patterson 14 and Giddens 12. Two of the four already have college deals in place, Staley to Mississippi State and Patterson to Western Kentucky.

Holland is willing to concede that they are the most athletic team in the state.

But his Devils have arguably gone through the tougher bracket. Upsets in the Region 3 tournament put the regular season No. 2, Tri-Cities, at Tift as a No. 4. In the quarterfinals, they defeated last year's runner-up, Hillgrove. Last week in Atlanta, they knocked off Norcross, who won last year's crown.

Hillgrove bounced Wheeler out in the semis in 2013. Holland thinks that may be motivating them. "They're pretty much the same team [in regards to names on the roster], but they're one step closer.

"We're not alarmed by it. We'll hoist the silver trophy."

His own big three, Tadric Jackson, Ladarius Stewart and D.J. Bryant have had a big tournament.

Jackson is averaging 22.8 points for the state tournament and has put up progressively bigger numbers as the games have increased in importance. Versus Norcross, he had 35, 24 in the second half.

Stewart has had at least 11 in every game. Bryant had 17 against Hillgrove, but was plagued by foul trouble in the semis. He still had time to hit what Holland dubbed a "knockout 3 [-pointer]" at 4:44 in the 4th when the Devils were barely hanging on to a two point lead.

Freshman Preston Horne has looked much older, he said and against Norcross, "Pig answered the bell."

Pig, the nickname of Tyrie Jackson, had been held scoreless against Hillgrove, but had 12 in the semis, including two 3-pointers and made 4 of 6 free throws in the final minute. His two misses were after a midcourt collision.

He had plenty of praise for Jalen Lewis and Steven Waters, both of who had to play key minutes. Waters he said was particularly effective in holding down Lorenzo Carter. Carter, a Georgia football signee, started off hot, but was held to five second half points. He had 16 total.

Holland had a blast from the past earlier this week.

"I remember a conversation when they were in 8th grade," he said. This season's seniors  won the middle school championship that year. He told them they would be state champs as seniors.

"'Coach, remember that conversation?'" they asked. "Absolutely," he said he told them.

There are some coincidences with the 1996 team. The most recognizable player from each squad — Pablo Machado and Tadric Jackson — signed with Georgia Tech. In each semifinal, they defeated the defending champion on the campus of Georgia Tech.

That Tift team was defeated only once, a one point loss to Bartlett, Alaska, in the Great Florida Shootout. This team has lost three games, two down in Florida to Montverde Academy and Lake Highland Prep. The other loss was on the road at Valdosta. Montverde has also beaten Wheeler this year.

Wheeler has been to the finals seven times in history; the Blue Devils have gone four. The Wildcats won championships in 1994, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2009. Both teams have had their close calls in the tourney. Wheeler won by three over North Gwinnett in the quarterfinals. In the second round had a 93-90 triple overtime victory over Shiloh. Tift's nail-biter came against Lovejoy in the second round. Owners of a 16-point lead going into the 4th quarter, they had to hold their breath as Lovejoy attempted a long bomb at the buzzer.

As confident as Holland is about his chances, there was one undecided point late this week. He said the school was decide Thursday as to whether or not the team would be staying in a hotel Saturday.

If they do hoist the trophy, he said his team would be rewarded. "We'll have rings sized Monday," he said.

"They will be blessed. They will will leave a legacy."

 

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20140726 John Gamble.JPG

John Gamble (right) is joined by John Reid at the Tiftarea YMCA Saturday.

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