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Five biggest storylines for area basketball teams as they prepare for state playoffs
Handful of local schools appear primed for deep postseason runs
Gainesville forward Jarrel Rosser (2) looks to put up a shot while being guarded by Lanier's Sean Foster (33) in Friday night's Region 8-AAAAAA game at Gainesville High School. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Friday’s games
East Hall girls at Redan, 5:30 p.m.
Gainesville girls vs. River Ridge, 6 p.m.
Flowery Branch girls vs. North Springs, 6 p.m.
Chestatee girls vs. Chapel Hill, 6 p.m.
Dawson County girls vs. Lovett, 7 p.m.
Gainesville boys vs. Creekview, 7:30 p.m.
West Hall girls vs. Troup, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday’s games
North Hall girls at Pace Academy, 2:30 p.m.
Dawson County boys at Pace Academy, 4 p.m.
Buford girls vs. Decatur, 5 p.m.
Flowery Branch boys at Riverwood, 5:30 p.m.
White County boys at Sandy Creek, 5:30 p.m.
East Hall boys vs. Westminster, 6 p.m.
Lumpkin County boys at Cedar Grove, 6 p.m.
Buford boys vs. Lithia Springs, 6:30 p.m.
West Hall boys at LaGrange, 7 p.m.

Tickets are $7 per game, $10 for a doubleheader per GHSA rules

With the state basketball playoffs starting Friday, here are the five biggest storylines for area teams as they prepare for first-round action.

Reloaded Red Elephants

After losing one of the state’s best players from a team that went unbeaten in region play last year, it would have been reasonable for the Gainesville boys basketball team to take a step backward this season.

Instead, the Red Elephants have taken what appears to be the next step toward a state championship.

No. 2 Gainesville enters the playoffs as one of the Class AAAAAA favorites, despite the graduation of D’Marcus Simonds, who averaged 25 points per game as a senior last season. The former four-star shooting guard, as rated by ESPN, helped the Red Elephants win 21 games and reach the second round of the playoffs before enrolling at Georgia State.

But Benjie Wood’s Red Elephants amassed a 26-1 record and the Region 8-AAAAAA title behind a team comprised mostly of juniors, including Region Player of the Year Bailey Minor.

The athletic and aggressive team dominated the majority of its region opponents and the local competition at Lanierland, winning three tournament games by a combined 112 points. Gainesville most recently showed it could win from behind, storming back to win last Saturday’s region tournament championship game 89-84 after trailing by double digits for most of the contest against Dacula.

Now the Red Elephants eye the state title, beginning with a first-round home game against Creekview at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Even after parting ways with one of the best players in school history, that seems like a real possibility.

Role reversal for Lady Spartans

The West Hall girls basketball team snuck up on its opposition late last season, winning its region tournament title as a No. 3 seed as part of a surprising run to the state playoff quarterfinals.

This year, the Lady Spartans won’t have that same luxury.

West Hall, which hosts Troup in first-round action at 7:30 p.m. Friday, is a serious contender to claim the Class AAAA state championship. The No. 2 Lady Spartans (22-5) went undefeated in region play and beat Chestatee 48-38 for the tournament title last Saturday.

But they knew they had a target on their backs during the region tournament, and that won’t be any different as the state playoffs get underway.

“Last year, we were kind of the underdog and flew under the radar before we came on at the end,” West Hall coach Bryan Richerson said after the win against Chestatee. “I told them this year is going to be different because you’re the No. 1 seed.”

Yet the Lady Spartans appear primed for another deep playoff run. Led by the senior class of Avery Prather, Macy Passmore, Danielle Hinkelman and Megan English — all of whom received All-Region 7-AAAA recognition — West Hall isn’t lacking playoff experience and leadership.

Couple that with junior guard Anna McKendree, the Region Player of the Year who scored 35 points per game during last year’s playoff run, and the Lady Spartans have all the pieces for a championship push.

That also means West Hall will be one of the teams to beat, but Richerson’s squad has gotten used to its new status through the season.

“Night in and night out, we’ve been getting people’s best shots but keep winning,” the Region 7-AAAA Coach of the Year said. “Some way, we’ve overcome, and that’s what I’m proud of.”

East Hall boys on a roll

The Vikings seem to be playing their best basketball at just the right time.

East Hall has won 12 of its last 13 games, including the Region 7-AAA tournament championship against Greater Atlanta Christian last Saturday. The Vikings (20-7) can keep their hot streak going when they host Westminster at 6 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the playoffs.

After starting the season 6-5 and losing its region opener against Greater Atlanta Christian, the group has experienced quite the turnaround.

Part of that has to do with the team’s health. Seniors Mahki Brown, Keilen Dowdy and Tony Martinez all missed time during the first part of the season, and their return has given coach Joe Dix plenty of depth to support his full-court pressure scheme.

East Hall evened the regular-season series against Greater Atlanta Christian with a dominant 20-point home win Jan. 24 and later pulled out a 67-61 thriller in the region tournament championship game.

The only hiccup for the No. 7 Vikings since their second-place Lanierland finish in late December came two weeks ago at Dawson County, but they avenged that loss with a 76-62 victory in the region tournament semifinals.

Lakeview Academy, Buford programs hold top seeds

The three aforementioned teams aren’t the only local ones who will enjoy a No. 1 seed in the state playoffs.

The Lakeview Academy boys and girls as well as the Buford boys and girls won their respective region tournaments last weekend. They’ll have a more favorable path to the state semifinals than the No. 2 seeds, which will have to travel to the southern part of the state for second-round action, unless the higher-seeded team they’re paired with loses in the first round.

Because they each earned a top-eight seed, the Lions (No. 2) and Lady Lions (No. 6) will receive a bye in the first round of the Class A Private playoffs.

Buford, meanwhile, will host the Decatur girls and Lithia Springs boys in a doubleheader starting at 5 p.m. Saturday. Both the Wolves and Lady Wolves are 24-2 and ranked No. 1 in Class AAAAA.

Potential playoff spoilers

Besides the state championship contenders, there are several area teams that look like dark horse candidates.

The No. 3 seed North Hall girls have a first-round matchup at No. 2 seed Pace Academy at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The Lady Trojans, winners of 18 games this season, narrowly lost to eventual Region 7-AAA champion Greater Atlanta Christian in the region semifinals before defeating No. 1 tournament seed East Hall 67-54 in the third-place game.

Despite finishing at the lowest seed from the region, the Lady Vikings will challenge Region 5-AAA No. 1 seed Redan with guard duo Kylah Mize and Carly Winters when they meet at 5:30 p.m. Friday.

The No. 3 seed Lumpkin County boys will have their hands full against No. 2 seed Cedar Grove at 6 p.m. Saturday.

But with Region 7-AAA Player of the Year Zack Pulley and some newfound success at the free-throw line, the Indians can pull off the upset.

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