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Thackham: Playoff-bound basketball programs led by unsung heroes
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Johnson's Roderick English dribbles to the basket with a defender from Stephens County trailing during Tuesday's Region 8-AAAA tournament game in Oakwood. The Knights face North Hall in the tournament semifinals at 8:30 tonight in Oakwood. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Friday's region tournament schedule

For Flowery Branch to start an imperfect comeback, Lexie Sengkhammee needed to execute a perfect pass.

Her team down by five, the Lady Falcons’ freshman guard forced a turnover in the backcourt from a Winder-Barrow attack, set her stance, then launched a cross-court pass that cleared three Bulldoggs before falling in the hands of an open Julianne Sutton underneath the basket.

“She has a really good feel for the game,” said Falcons coach Hazel Hall. “Most of the time, she knows what to do, when.

She’s got the good feel for what kind of pass she needs to make, when she needs to shoot and knows how to play.”

Sengkhammee finished the night with just nine points in the 48-38 comeback victory on Jan. 31 for Flowery Branch (20-3). But her long-range assist won’t be recorded in the scorebook.

As long as the Lady Falcons keep winning, they won’t care.

This week’s region tournaments will feature several star players like Johnson High’s Ty Cockfield, Gainesville’s D’Marcus Simonds and Flowery Branch’s Sutton, who are all leading their respective teams in points scored.

But for any team to advance through the region tournament and into the state playoffs, it’ll need a few lesser-known lynchpins — athletes who can affect the game directly by setting up plays or grabbing the necessary rebounds to earn a win.

“As a coach, you like to have depth,” said Gainesville’s Benjie Wood, who started three freshmen in a Feb. 3 win over region rival Apalachee. “We have seven or eight guys who we consider starters.”

Take freshman Bailey Minor, for example. The lanky 6-foot-5 freshman forward has recently given Gainesville’s (23-2) competition yet another threat to defend with Minor’s ability to post up, as well as hit 3-pointers with ease.

Earlier this season, Gainesville’s lone threat seemed to be Simonds, a Mississippi State commit with a flair for flashy dunks and questionable headgear (Remember his cheese-head before the Lanierland final?).

But now, with Minor averaging 15 points in his past two important region matchups, the freshman has proven to Wood that he can be a consistent scorer with enough strength to probe the paint and enough accuracy to nail the 3-ball.

“He may be the most respected kid on our team,” Wood said. “The respect is earned, and he shows up every day and works his tail off.”

Where would Johnson be without Roderick English, its most consistent performer? Not at 24-0, according to Knights head coach Jeff Steele. The senior (21 points, 10 rebounds per game) has shown a high motor on both sides of the floor, and is responsible for transitioning from the defensive end for leading scorer Cockfield.

Where English has struggled, so has Johnson — the Knights led by just eight at halftime in the semifinals of Lanierland against Chestatee. It only took two minutes in the third for English to finally hit his stride, banging home three 3-pointers to help open up a 21-point win.

“When you can count on something like that, it’s comforting as a coach,” Steele said. “I’ve had several teams where I didn’t know where the rebounds would be, where the points would be, and that makes it scary. Having that guy helps you sleep better at night.”

North Hall girls coach Kristi House said she is content to watch when her Lady Trojans (15-10) are out on the court.

Kensi Gillespie and fellow senior Katie Sayres have become on-the-court generals for a young Lady Trojans team that earned a No. 2 seed in the Region 8-AAAA tournament.

Gillespie sparked North Hall in a recent win over Chestatee by scoring three 3-pointers in the opening seven minutes before helping the Lady Trojans hold on for an 11-point win. Sometimes, the best way to coach is to let talented players play their game.

“I’m constantly asking her what she likes on offense, so I put a lot of faith on what we need to run,” House said.

Several hard-working players have the chance to make a name for themselves in this week’s region tournaments — even if their names don’t end up in the headlines.

Regional events