Writer's Block: Brent and Jon discuss North Hall's chances in the semifinals
Holloway: Success earned with more than hard work
North Hall vs. LaGrange
When: 8:30 tonight
Where: Macon Centreplex
Records: North Hall (27-3); LaGrange (30-0)
Seeds: North Hall No. 1 Region 7-AAA; LaGrange No. 1 Region 2-AAA
Coaches: North Hall, Benjie Wood. LaGrange, Michael Pauley.
Key players: North Hall, PG Lance White (5-8, So.); SG Chris Barnes (5-8, Jr.); F Kanlor Coker (6-3, So.). LaGrange, C Jamius Gunsby (6-5, Sr.); PG Royal Thomas (6-2, Sr.); PG Dionte Mains (6-2, Sr).
Following his team’s final practice at the North Hall gymnasium, Benjie Wood stood in the center of the court, glanced at the players, and said, “Can you believe this group is in the final four?”
Believe it or not, the Trojans (27-4) are, and with a win tonight against LaGrange, they will be playing for the Class AAA state title.
“I’m real nervous,” senior Trevor Ross said Wednesday. “This is my first time playing in a big game like this in front of a lot of people.
“We just have to stay focused and play basketball.”
Staying focused is just one of the several key points that Wood has tried to instill in his players as they prepare for the top-ranked Grangers (30-0).
“They’re more athletic than us, so we’re going to have to play smarter than them and we’re going to have to shoot the ball better than them,” said Wood, who characterized LaGrange as a group who is “5-11 to 6-5 and all of them can run really fast and jump really high.”
Despite the athletic disparity, Wood knows his players won’t be intimidated.
“We know what our strengths are,” he said. “If we try to out-athlete them, it’s going to be a long night.
“That’s the good thing about our crew,” he added. “We know who we are, we know our identity and we’re going to do what got us here.”
What they do isn’t a secret.
“We know they do a very good job of shooting and dribble-drive,” LaGrange coach Michael Pauley said of the Trojans. “Their team effort is good, they’re unselfish and they scrap for every possession.”
And despite what others may think, Pauley knows that the Trojans aren’t as unathletic as they may appear.
“Our guys respect North Hall,” Pauley said. “They’re athletes and they play hard.”
Sort of like the Grangers.
“We’re a lot like (Wood’s) team,” Pauley said. “We rotate guys pretty freely and when they’re on the court, they play.”
The only difference, according to Wood, is the appearance of the two teams. LaGrange boasts nine players 6-2 or taller and its shortest player is 5-8 sophomore Jake Pauley, while the Trojans’ tallest player is 6-3 Kanler Coker and two of their best players (Lance White and Chris Barnes) are only 5-8.
“I’m probably going to go up to the coach and apologize for the fear factor that we put in their hearts,” Wood joked.
All kidding aside, Wood knows just what his team needs to do in order to combat any difference in athleticism.
“The worst thing you can do is come out and be passive,” he said. “We’re going to attack them, we’re going to spread the floor and do what we do.
“They want to speed you up and make you rush,” he added. “We’re going to go back to the old saying from John Wooden, ‘Be quick, but don’t hurry.’ If we get in a hurry, we’re in trouble.”
As dominating as LaGrange’s record might appear, some of its previous playoff opponents have been able to do just what Wood is asking of the Trojans. After winning by almost 20 in Round 1, the Grangers escaped the second round with a one-point win over Monroe and edged out an eight-point win against Dougherty in the quarterfinals.
“We have the experience and the ability to pull games out,” Pauley said.
That experience comes from a group of seniors who take pride in being undefeated after going 6-21 as freshmen.
“We’re glad we haven’t lost a game,” Pauley said. “We’ve paid our dues with losses. We know how it feels to lose and we don’t want that feeling.”
Nor do the Trojans, who enter tonight’s game riding an 11-game win streak and the experience of playing in large arenas, just not with so much riding on the game.
“The adrenaline is probably going to be about Mach 3,” Wood said of his team’s composure before they step on the floor. “They’re going to be overly excited and I know that; I’m aware of that.”
To address that, Wood has talked to his players about controlling their breathing, and will use his pregame speech in the locker room to calm them down.
“They used to say when talking about a great player that you don’t try to stop him, you only hope to contain him,” Wood said. “We’re going to try and contain (the excitement). We’re taking the U.S. policy of containment.”
That can also be said in regards to what North Hall will try and do to LaGrange.
“We don’t back down from anybody,” Ross said. “We’re going to go out there and do what we do and take care of business.”