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North Hall looking to turn strong regular season into a postseason berth
Trojans won first nine games in subregion play to take No. 1 seed into 8-AAA tournament
North Hall’s Griffin Olson looks to pass the ball in traffic during the team’s recent win over Franklin County at the North Hall gymnasium. The Trojans have clinched the North subregion title of Region 8-AAA and the No. 1 seed to the region tournament. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

North Hall's boys basketball program has proved the critics wrong.

With only two returning starters from last season, and still playing in the shadows of the 2010 Trojans squad that made the state semifinals, North Hall (21-4, 9-1 Region 8-AAA North) raced to a new school-record 14 straight wins in the second half of the season to lock up a subregion title.

"There wasn't a lot of pressure on this group to win this season," North Hall coach Benjie Wood said. "It's amazing what happens when a group of players sells out to playing for the team."

Despite Tuesday's loss to Stephens County to round out the regular season, North Hall's status to open the Region 8-AAA tournament next week is already secured.

As subregion champions, the Trojans will host the West Hall/Lumpkin County winner at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday for a spot in the state playoffs.

"The biggest advantage of winning the subregion is having that game to go to state in our gym," Wood said.

That may be especially true considering the depth of 8-AAA.

In the South subregion, the top six seeds are all capable of winning.

In the North, Franklin County, Chestatee and Stephens County will also keep it competitive.

"We're going to have four quality teams in this region not get to the playoffs," Wood said.

North Hall's coach says that the biggest difference he's seen on the court as the regular season progressed is better decision making.

Last Friday, Wood says that North Hall had only two second-half turnovers against Franklin County.

The Trojans are in a hurry to erase the memory of last season when they lost to Gainesville in the region tournament and missed out on the playoffs.

North Hall hit a rough patch during the middle of this season when it endured back-to-back losses for a fourth-place team finish in the Lanierland tournament.

"I think a lot of people counted us out," said sophomore guard Andrew Smith.

The fact that North Hall put together nine straight subregion wins is more impressive considering the fact that the team was shorthanded for much of that stretch.

Senior center Imani Cross, a University of Nebraska football signee, has missed stretches of games with football-related obligations.

Then junior power forward Adam Kelly missed game time at the end of the regular season with a concussion.

During that stretch, Payton Cagle was one of the main links that held the team together, playing a variety of positions.

And the impact that junior point guard Ebo Smith has made for the Trojans can not be down-played.

Last month, he averaged 20 points, six rebounds and five assists a game. Wood moved Smith from shooting guard to point guard over the summer and has seen his leading scorer flourish ever since.

Smith's biggest scoring night of the year was 32 points with 12 rebounds in a win against East Hall on Jan. 28.

"Ebo's improved leaps and bounds since last year," Wood said. "He's a hard worker and just extremely coachable."

"Ebo's our leader," Andrew Smith said. "Not only does he score most of the points, but also plays great on defense."

Then there's the players for North Hall whose impact doesn't necessarily show up on the stat sheet.

Wood relies on Andrew Smith and Zach Tibbs for taking on any challenge thrown their way, and Kelly also for his defensive intensity.

"They're just great competitors," Wood said.

Part of North Hall's success also goes to the man in charge.

Wood has guided two different programs to the state semifinals in his coaching career and has proven over the years he knows how to assemble a winning team. For Wood, it all boils down to hard work.

"The kids know they have to play hard," Wood said.

"They're either going to play hard or sit by me on the bench."

The players appreciate the coach's consistency.

"Coach Wood makes practice tough, but he also knows how to have fun," Ebo Smith said. "He's always trying to encourage us to get better."

With its 14-game winning streak, North Hall broke the mark of 11 set by the team two years ago that advanced all the way to Macon.

Wood says he wasn't aware of the length of the Trojans' winning streak until it was printed in news reports.

He was only concerned about which team was next on the schedule and what needed to be done to win the subregion.

Andrew Smith said the team has a great team bond at this point in the season.

"We have a good team nucleus," he said. "We all have the same mindset that we have to work hard."


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