Class AAA blog: Breaking down the championship matchups
Class AAA will crown its state basketball champions Thursday at the Macon Centreplex, with the girls title game at 6 p.m. and the boys set to follow. Let’s break down the matchups:
Boys: Morgan County vs. Hart County
Morgan County is in familiar territory, and with a trio of senior guards (Lethal Weapon 3 II, if you will) that could rival any in the state, the Bulldogs are comfortable. The all-Region 8 final pits Morgan County, which won AAA titles in 2014 and 2016, against a Hart County team that Morgan has beaten twice this season — 70-53 on Jan. 15 and 66-55 on Jan. 26.
The Bulldogs have been a finals-caliber program for half a decade, and this year’s team, making its fifth finals appearance in six years, arguably could be one of the best that coach Jamond Sims has put on the floor. In 2014 Morgan defeated Buford 69-45 for the AAA crown. In 2014-15, the Bulldogs lost to Jenkins in the title game, 62-60. In 2015-16, Morgan County got its revenge on Jenkins with a 66-56 victory for its second title. In 2016-17, Morgan County fell to Pace Academy in the title game the year the Knights were led by Duke- and Chicago Bulls-bound Wendell Carter Jr. Morgan County lost 73-71 to eventual-champion GAC in the semifinals last season, a score that some of the Bulldogs players have as cellphone backgrounds.
Morgan, which is averaging 70 points throughout the tournament, is led by seniors Tyrin Lawrence, Stevin Green and Alec Woodard. Lawrence, at 6-foot-4, is the tallest of the bunch. Woodard, an Austin-Peay commit, comes in at 6-3 and Greene, at 5-8, is the glue that holds the trio together. But don’t let Greene’s size fool you. He went viral on social media earlier in the year with an alley-oop dunk against, you guessed it, Hart County. In the semifinals, Woodard led the group with 23 points. Lawrence scored 21 points, and Greene finished with 18 points. The three can play.
Hart County is trying for its third title in school history and its first since 1986 in Class AAA. The Hart program believes what it learned from the previous losses to Morgan could prove valuable in the championship game.
The Bulldogs’ first boys title came in 1963 (AA), when coach Harry Marsh was at the helm. He is back after an 18-year career at Franklin County and a brief retirement period. This is his first season back in Hart County after basketball tugged him back into the business.
The Bulldogs have averaged 62 points per game in the tournament. In the first three rounds, Hart won by a combined 10 points after victories against Pace Academy, 54-50, North Murray, 56-54, and Johnson-Savannah, 67-63. In the semifinals against Dawson County, Hart cruised to a 71-56 victory after the Tigers climbed to within three points, 38-35, with five minutes left in the third quarter. Hart calmly expanded the lead back to double-figures utilizing a stifling, physical defense. Rex McCord, a 6-1 senior shooting forward, provided much of the offensive production against Dawson County with 28 points. McCord paced Hart County through the quarterfinal victory against Johnson-Savannah with 33 points. Jordan Langston, a 5-10 guard, scored 19 points in the semis. Shone Webb, a 6-3 sophomore guard/forward, added 12 points against Dawson County. Aside from Langston and McCord, Hart features three other seniors on its roster – Elijah Robinson, a 5-11 guard, Tyrese Morrison, a 6-foot guard, and Trevin Curry, a 6-1 shooting forward. Its two juniors, Quay Randolph, a 6-4 forward, and Preston Mewborn, a 5-11 guard, also provide experience.
Girls: Hart County vs. Johnson-Savannah
Hart County’s girls enter the finals with a chance to re-awaken a tradition of excellence that persisted throughout the late 1980s and early ’90s. Hart brought six consecutive AAA titles from 1989-1994 to the banks of Lake Hartwell. This year’s visit, however, marks the first finals appearance since the 1994 title run. The Bulldogs have won eight titles, with Class AA crowns in 1963 and 1969.
Hart is averaging 67.25 points per game in the tournament with victories against Redan, 75-21, North Hall, 73-66, Tattnall County, 59-51, and Beach in the semifinals, 62-58. Hart defeated local favorite Beach at Savannah’s Georgia Southern campus (formerly Armstrong Atlantic) in the semis, basically facing an away game at a neutral site.
This team is led by Western Kentucky signee Torrion Starks, who helped erase a 12-point second-half deficit in the semis against Beach and willed Hart to win, according to coach Mike Edwards. Starks scored 26 points in the second half on the way to a game-high 34 points. Starks, a 5-8 guard, was 11-of-14 from the line in the final quarter and 15-of-21 for the game. Her seven free throws in the final 1:04 proved the difference. Shakendra Grove, a 5-7 junior shooting guard, can make defenders pay with her sharp-shooting abilities from beyond the arc. In the semis, Grove scored 15 points, all on three-pointers. Starks is one of four seniors on the team, including Nene Burch, a 5-9 shooting forward, Tanyiah Merritt, a 5-6 shooting guard, and A’cira Teasley, a 5-9 shooting guard. Hart entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed from Region 8 after defeating Jefferson 68-64 in the Region championship game Feb. 9.
Johnson-Savannah might not have the best record, and it might not have the top-seed from its region after losing to Beach in the 3-AAA title game. But it’s still alive, and as the defending champions, the team to beat. Johnson won its first-ever state title last season with a 62-50 victory against Greater Atlanta Christian. The Atomsmashers have averaged 65.5 points per game in the tournament with victories against Liberty County, 84-28, Morgan County, 66-44, Jefferson, 48-32, and Sonoraville, 64-52.
Johnson is led by senior J’Mya Cutter. The 5-8 guard led Johnson through the semifinals with 17 points, a few points above her season average of 15.3. She adds 5.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and four steals per game. Antalazia Baker, who’s averaging 15.1 points per game, scored 11 points in the semifinals and plays beside 5-9 freshman Zoriah Mobley. Senior guard Jazmine Thompson, who’s averaging 13.2 points per game, added nine points in the semifinals. Thompson leads Johnson in rebounding with 9.1 per game. She’s averaging 5.1 on the offensive side of the floor. Checobia Hugie, a 5-7 senior guard, added nine points against Sonoraville to improve her season average to 6.6 points per game.
Johnson enjoyed an early 21-8 lead in the semifinals before miscommunications on defense allowed Sonoraville to close to within five points in the second quarter. Johnson made several adjustments and built the lead back to nine points at the break and stayed around that margin the remainder of the game. It’s adjustments like those that make Johnson hard to beat.