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4 local basketball programs ready to tackle last hurdle to reach championship game
North Hall and Buford boys, Dawson girls all playing Saturday in Savannah
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North Hall head coach Benjie Wood works with his players as the team prepares for the state semi-finals during a practice Thursday afternoon. The Trojans will travel to Armstrong State University to take on Johnson High of Savannah Saturday night.

Saturday’s games
State semifinals

Class AAA
at Armstrong Atlantic University

Dawson County girls vs. Southwest-Macon, 4 p.m.

North Hall boys vs. Johnson-Savannah, 5:30 p.m., 102.9-FM

Buford boys vs. Savannah, 8:30 p.m., 550-AM

Class AAAAA
at Kennesaw State University

Gainesville boys vs. Effingham County, 5:30 p.m., 550-AM

Benjie Wood’s mind is going to be racing Saturday as his North Hall boys prepare to face Johnson-Savannah in tonight’s Class AAA state semifinal game five hours from home at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah.

For one thing, North Hall’s coach will be figuring the best plan of attack to slow the Atom Smashers (23-6), who are led by 6-foot-6 Louisiana State University signee Tim Quarterman. He is one of eight players on the team that stands at least 6-5.

Then there’s the angle of not letting the large crowd and unfamiliar setting get the best of the Trojans (27-3), who advanced to the fourth round of the playoffs with a 51-44 win against St. Pius X on Wednesday in Gainesville.

One thing Wood will not be thinking about this weekend, however, is winning a state title. The Trojans, like the other three area programs playing in the state semifinals Saturday, need a win to advance to the state championship game at the Macon Centreplex next weekend.

“I’ve told the kids to enjoy the moment this weekend,” said Wood, who is leading the Trojans to the state semifinals for the second time. “If we win Saturday, then we’ll have a week to prepare and start thinking about winning the state championship.”

The format of the final two rounds in the GHSA playoffs is noticeably different this season. The six classifications are holding semifinal rounds at different host sites this season. Starting Thursday, the championship games will commence at the Macon Centreplex for all classifications.

Playing closest to home in the semifinals Saturday are the Gainesville boys, who face Effingham County (27-4) at 5:30 p.m. at Kennesaw State University.

The Red Elephants (22-9) have been the cardiac kids of the postseason, winning all three playoff games on their home floor by three points or less. It hasn’t been quite as tough for Effingham County, advancing to the semifinals with a 32-point victory against Creekside on Wednesday night in Springfield.

In two of the Rebels’ three playoff games, they have won by more than 20 points, led by the work of junior Jakeenan Gant, who is averaging 18 points and nine rebounds a night, and guards Jay Wright and Ryan Wilkins.

Gant is one of the state’s top prospects for next year and has scholarship offers from Indiana, Florida, Marquette and Georgia Tech, among others.

“They’ve been drilling folks in the playoffs,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said. “They have guys that can shoot and pretty good size.”

The Red Elephants coach likes his chances in one game with his senior-heavy squad, led by Shaquan Cantrell and his 20 points and seven rebounds per game.

Luke Moore and Deshaun Watson are both averaging 12 points and four rebounds a night for Gainesville, and senior Chase England averages 10 points a game. The Red Elephants advanced with Wednesday’s 60-58 win against New Manchester, thanks to Jikeese Ruff’s two huge free throws to break the tie with only nine seconds left in the game.

Cottrell is hoping they can pull out another close one again.

“Against Effingham County, I’m glad it’s not best 3 of 5 games,” Cottrell said. “Who knows what will happen in one game.”

In Class AAA in Savannah, North Hall and Buford, both out of Region 7-AAA, are going to feel like the visitors against schools from Savannah, even though the games are not in a high school gym.

Playing first, the Trojans are led by senior Ebo Smith with 19 points and seven rebounds a game. Meanwhile, a fast-tempo Johnson-Savannah is led by Quarterman at 19 points per game, 6-3 Greg Mortimer (10 ppg.), 6-1 Adrian Bonds (9 ppg.) and 6-8 Saadiq Muhammad (10 ppg.).

“Johnson has a super athletic program,” Wood said. “We know we have our hands full.”

For the nightcap in Savannah, the Buford boys will face Savannah (27-3), who lost in the Class AAAAA title game in 2012. Wolves (26-6) coach Allen Whitehart has guided his second team to the state semifinals at the school, this season led by senior A.J. Davis with about 18 points per game.

Whitehart says that this season has been special as they play to remember former teammate Adam Smith, who died before the season began.

“Each team is special and has its own story,” Whitehart said. “This season has been about overcoming adversity for us here at Buford and remembering Adam Smith.”

The Blue Jackets are led by senior guard Jovante Spivey, who averages 15 points a game. Savannah also has talented guards in Jamal Norman and Jermaine Williams. Another one of the team leaders, 6-7 forward Chris Cokley, will likely not play after hitting his head on the court in Wednesday’s quarterfinal win against Washington County.

According to the Savannah Morning News, he was unconscious on the floor and required hospitalization for the injury, but was responsive later that evening.

“Savannah is a program that plays very hard, aggressive,” Whitehart said. “Success is something that is a part of their culture.”

Also in Class AAA, the Dawson County girls face Southwest-Macon at 4 p.m. at Armstrong Atlantic. The Lady Tigers (26-5) advanced to the semifinals with a 52-47 win against Decatur on Tuesday, while Southwest rolled to a 58-47 win against Washington County.

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