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Lanierland runs deep for Hall County's basketball teams
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Johnson High’s Ahmad Harrison tries to shoot over King’s Ridge Christian’s Jack Armstrong on Nov. 24 in Oakwood. - photo by Jared Putnam

Lanierland Basketball Tournament schedule

Saturday

All games at West Hall High

10 a.m.: No. 4 Lakeview girls vs. No. 5 East Hall

11:30 a.m.: No. 4 Chestatee boys vs. No. 5 West Hall

1 p.m.: No. 3 Chestatee girls vs. No. 6 Flowery Branch

2:30 p.m.: No. 3 Gainesville boys vs. No. 6 Lakeview

4 p.m.: No. 2 North Hall girls vs. No. 7 West Hall

5:30 p.m.: No. 2 East Hall boys vs. No. 7 North Hall

7 p.m.: No. 1 Gainesville girls vs. No. 8 Johnson

8:30 p.m.: No. 1 Johnson boys vs. No. 8 Flowery Branch

Monday

All games at Chestatee High

9 a.m.: Chestatee-Flowery Branch girls loser vs. North Hall-West Hall loser

10:30 a.m.: East Hall-North Hall boys loser vs. Gainesville-Lakeview loser

Noon: Gainesville-Johnson girls loser vs. Lakeview-East Hall loser

1:30 p.m.: Johnson-Flowery Branch boys loser vs. Chestatee-West Hall loser

4 p.m.: Chestatee-Flowery Branch girls winner vs. North Hall-West Hall winner

5:30 p.m.: East Hall-North Hall boys winner vs. Gainesville-Lakeview winner

7 p.m.: Gainesville-Johnson girls winner vs. Lakeview-East Hall winner

8:30 p.m.: Johnson-Flowery Branch boys winner vs. Chestatee-West Hall winner

Tuesday

All games at Chestatee High

9 a.m.: Girls seventh-place game

10:30 a.m.: Boys seventh-place game

Noon: Girls fifth-place game

1:30 p.m.: Boys fifth-place game

4 p.m.: Girls third-place game

5:30 p.m.: Boys third-place game

7 p.m.: Girls championship game

8:30 p.m.: Boys championship game

Hall County’s high school basketball teams have spent November and December playing top-level competition. They’ll continue that trend by facing each other in the Lanierland Tournament beginning Saturday at West Hall and continuing Monday and Tuesday at Chestatee.

Johnson is the defending boys champion a year after collecting its first Lanierland title since 1988, and Gainesville will look to repeat as girls champ after its first Lanierland championship since 2008. Both Most Valuable Players, Johnson’s Ty Cockfield and Gainesville’s Taylor Hawks, are back to help their teams’ efforts at consecutive championships.

The Knights are among the headliners of a boys bracket that includes fellow unbeaten Gainesville and one-loss East Hall. Even the No. 8 seed, Flowery Branch, has already matched its five wins from a season ago, and North Hall has equaled its 2013-14 wins total (6) as well.

“It’s going to be one of the most competitive ones I can remember,” Johnson boys coach Jeff Steele said. “And I’ve been doing this for 17 years.”

Flowery Branch’s girls by far have the best record in their bracket with a 9-1 start, but their competition in Lanierland is probably better than those schools’ records because of their challenging schedules. East Hall, for instance, is 6-3 with losses to unbeaten Dawson County, Banks County and Charlotte (N.C.) Providence Day — teams with a combined 28-4 record.

“With the competition level here, anybody could win it,” Gainesville girls coach Brenda Hill-Gilmore said.

While the level of play on display is a major draw, coaches and players alike look forward to seeing former players and fans filling the stands. Hill-Gilmore compared it to “an NCAA tournament atmosphere.” It’s something that’s hard to miss with supporters of the schools packed in and supporting their teams.

“It’s got a really good atmosphere, especially if you make it to the semifinals or the finals,” said Flowery Branch girls coach Hazel Hall, in her seventh season as head coach and eighth overall with the Lady Falcons. “The place will be packed and the place will be loud. And you won’t be able to hear anything.”

Benjie Wood was the girls coach at Johnson for six seasons and coached the North Hall boys for seven years. He’s now in his second season at the helm of the Gainesville boys program, which is off to a 10-0 start led by junior guard and Mississippi State commitment D’Marcus Simonds. Wood noted that former players always remember what year they won Lanierland.

“If you win the Lanierland Tournament, that’s a big deal and that’s bragging rights,” Wood said. “People that grow up here understand how important that tournament is.”

This is a rare year where the tournament is after Christmas after usually being played earlier in December. East Hall girls coach Justin Wheeler is grateful the tournament starts on Dec. 27 so his team can practice the day after Christmas. East Hall boys coach Joe Dix said teams should be sharper than they were at the tournament in previous years because they have more games under their belt.

Either way, nothing will come easy in the eight-team brackets for the boys or girls teams. Dix is hopeful a demanding early slate, including a tournament in Alabama, has his guys ready.

“Hopefully it’s prepared us,” Dix said. “We’re going to see some quickness and some size. Three games in four days is tough, too.”

Steele said Gainesville should be the boys favorite but that the Red Elephants, like everyone else, have a hard road to the title. Wood pointed to Johnson but said everybody is good.

Familiarity doesn’t hurt the cause of hotly-contested matchups, either.

“Everybody knows each other so well,” Steele said. “That’s one thing that makes it so competitive. These kids know each other so well. They raise their levels. Nothing would surprise me.”

Like Hill-Gilmore said, the players on opposing teams are friends. Some of them play AAU together.

“The rivalry is there,” Hill-Gilmore said. “Nobody wants to lose to their friends.”

Wheeler is grateful to be in his second year as part of the historic tournament, which began in 1959. It will be a good measuring stick for the Lady Vikings.

“Right now we’re just trying to buckle down and focus and regroup and have a good showing,” Wheeler said.

The chance to repeat is something that will energize Steele’s players, though he knows the Knights can’t rest on their laurels.

“It’ll be huge for my guys. Obviously, they feel good about it. We’re sitting here 9-0, and we’ve played some pretty good teams,” Steele said. “It’s my job and my assistants’ job to make sure these guys are hungry and humble.”

The coaches agree it should be wide-open for both the boys and girls titles and that no one can overlook an opponent.

“It really depends on who gets hot at that time,” Wood said.

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