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Spartans the best around since ugly Lanierland loss

POSTED: January 9, 2011 11:30 p.m.

Losing a 26-point lead to a subregion and county foe could derail a team’s entire season. Or, as in the case of the West Hall Spartans, it could propel one to a state championship.

Don’t believe me? Just take a look at how the now-No. 7 Spartans (13-3, 4-0 Region 8B-AAA) are playing ever since they blew that 26-point lead to Gainesville in the opening round of the Lanierland tournament.

They’ve won six straight games, including victories over then-No. 2 North Hall and No. 5 Gainesville.

Their average margin of victory during the streak is 13.3, and if you take out a pair of 6-point wins against North Hall and Chestatee, they’re are beating the opposition by an average of 17 points.

It’s safe to say, they’re playing the best basketball in the area right now.

And it’s all because of the collapse against Gainesville.

“That was a powerful lesson to learn,” West Hall coach Warren Sellers said. “We learned that no lead is safe, especially the way teams shoot the 3 in this region.

“Gainesville played super in that game, but we made some poor decisions. We didn’t play well with the lead and hold our composure.”

Now, that’s not happening.

On defense, the Spartans are playing a tight and quick-moving zone that’s forcing opposing players to take shots with a hand in their face. And after the shot goes up, they’re dominating on the glass thanks to the inside presence of 6-foot-4 Shunquez Stephens and 6-6 William Stroup. Throw in Stephens’ younger brother Jamaad, who had 10 rebounds in a win over Johnson on Friday, and you have an incredible trio of rebounders.

And what do rebounds lead to? Fast breaks. And boy, are the Spartans dangerous in the open court.

No, they don’t have the athletic wings like Gainesville and East Hall, who can rise above the defense for a crowd-rising slam, but they have the best point guard in the region in Young, who’s making an early case for Player of the Year honors.

With his vision and ball-handling abilities that amaze even the opposing crowds, Young has the speed and quickness to get past any defense for a wide-open shot of his own or one for his teammates, specifically Shunquez Stephens.

The versatile Stephens can play inside and out and dominate both sides of the floor in the process. He’s a match-up nightmare for any team, and when he and Young are on the floor together, it’s almost impossible to defend, and incredibly enjoyable to watch.

The two are like an extension of each other. Each knows where the other is going to be, and each is willing to defer to the other because they trust each other to knock down the shot.

But the Spartans have more, and that’s what makes them so dangerous.

Stroup is coming into his own as a force in the inside, sending shots into the stands with great fury. Guard Dre Pou is an excellent ball handler and can knock down a shot if teams start doubling Young and Stephens. Role players Brandon Fuqua, Jamaad Stephens and 6-5 freshman Hunter Atkinson are also contributing night in and night out for West Hall.

The team might lack depth, but what they have is enough to compete for a state title, and don’t be surprised when West Hall becomes the third different team in three years to head to Macon for the Class AAA semifinals.

And when they get there, they might have to send Gainesville a thank you card.

“Hopefully in March, we can look back on that loss and say that helped us,” Sellers said.

If that happens, it’ll probably be the first time the team refers back to that lowly afternoon in mid-December.

“Coach said we can’t rely on one loss to be hungry,” said Young, who called his team “the hungriest,” in terms of wanting to win a title.

“I think we can go all the way,” Young added. “We just have to keep getting better every game and every practice.”

If that happens, look out.

Jonathan Zopf is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him on twitter.com @gtimesjzopf, or contact him at jzopf@gainesvilletimes.com.



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