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Area basketball teams prepare for pressure-packed region tournaments
Teams must reach region semifinals to qualify for state playoffs
West Hall's Tae Reid (3) puts up a shot while being guarded by White County's Austin Harris (5) and Dillon Wilson (4) during Friday night's game at West Hall High School. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Tuesday’s games

Region 8-AAAAA boys
at Cedar Shoals
Flowery Branch boys vs. Clarke Central, 6 p.m.

Johnson vs. Cedar Shoals, 7:30 p.m. at Cedar Shoals

Region 7-AAAA boys
West Hall vs. Chestatee, 7:30 p.m. at Marist

Region 7-AAA girls
at Greater Atlanta Christian
Dawson County girls vs. Union County, 4:30 p.m.
North Hall girls vs. Lumpkin County, 6 p.m.

Region 8-A
at Lakeview Academy
Lakeview Academy girls vs. Athens Christian, 7 p.m.
Lakeview Academy boys vs. Riverside Military, 8:30 p.m.

Wednesday’s games

Region 8-AAAAA girls
at Cedar Shoals
Flowery Branch vs. Johnson, 7:30 p.m.

Region 7-AAA boys
at East Hall
North Hall vs. Lumpkin County, 4:30 p.m.
Dawson County vs, Union County, 6 p.m.

David Sokol has experienced the harsh realities of first-round region tournament games.

Like last season, when his Flowery Branch boys basketball team lost a tightly contested game against Salem by only four points. Or the year before that, when state semifinal-bound Cedar Shoals squeezed by the Falcons for a three-point win that came down to the final possession.

Losing those win-or-go-home games knocked Sokol’s squads out of playoff contention regardless of their regular-season records. As region tournaments gear up again this week, Flowery Branch and schools across the state know full well their playoff fates ride on how well they perform.

“I think you’ve got to keep the same routine and be enthusiastic,” Sokol said of the high-pressure tournaments. “Sometimes I think it’s all about how you present it to your players. We’ve got a group of guys who are looking forward to it and kind of hungry to take the next step.”

The No. 3 seed Falcons in Region 8-AAAAA will try to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009 when they face sixth-seed Clarke Central at 6 p.m. tonight at Cedar Shoals.

That game precedes No. 7 Johnson’s contest against No. 2 Cedar Shoals at 7:30 p.m., the final first-round game in the boys side. The Knights are among a handful of Hall County teams needing just one win to extend their seasons.

“That win-or-go-home game in the tournament might be the most stressful game anybody ever plays in,” North Hall boys coach Tyler Sanders said.

But there’s a group of area teams that don’t have to deal with nerve-wracking first-round games.

The Buford boys and girls, Gainesville boys, West Hall girls and East Hall girls all earned No. 1 seeds and first-round byes in their respective region tournaments. The Gainesville and Chestatee girls received the same perk for finishing second in region play, and their guaranteed spot in the region tournament semifinals Friday means they’ve also clinched a playoff berth.

There’s still much to play for, though. Region tournament winners get not only bragging rights but a chance to host playoff games all the way up to the state semifinals.

“It’s good to be able to know that you’re already in the state playoffs, but you always want to win that first semifinal game for homecourt advantage,” West Hall girls coach Bryan Richerson said. “If we can put a run together next week and try to get another region championship, that’d be great.”

Having extra days to rest and scout opponents is the biggest advantage of the first-round bye in the region tournament, Lady Spartans guard Anna McKendree said.

But East Hall girls coach Justin Wheeler sees a potentially negative side to that privilege. Though having already locked down a playoff spot is a relief, teams that win those high-pressure first-round games can capitalize on the confidence and momentum.

“You’re pumped, you’re ready to go and got the monkey off your back winning that first game. Now you’re rocking and rolling,” Wheeler said. “But if you haven’t played a game yet, your team could be a little bit flat.”

They key, however, is winning the first-round game.

That’s the task for many local teams, including the Lakeview girls and boys. Despite being No. 1 seed in their subregions, they have Region 8-A quarterfinal contests at home against Athens Christian at 7 p.m. and Riverside Military at 8:30 p.m. tonight, respectively.

And then there’s Flowery Branch, which will have to withstand the first-round pressure cooker to finally get back on the winning side of these win-or-go-home games.

“The guys that we’ve had for the last couple of years don’t want (losing in the first round) to happen again,” Sokol said. “They know they need to be focused. You prepare them, and they’re ready to go. But you have to let the game play out. That’s all you can do.”

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