On Tuesday night, the East Hall boys basketball made the nearly 75-mile drive up to Blue Ridge to play Fannin County in a 8-AA North subregion game.
After last week, it no longer seems like such a long drive.
The Vikings (11-4, 3-0 8-AA) returned from Anchorage, Alaska, on Sunday night, completing a journey to the country’s northernmost state that included numerous flights to get there and back.
“Blue Ridge is an hour and a half, so (the players) are not going to feel it so much,” coach Joe Dix said. “We played three straight days, and traveled 12 to 14 hours.
“This is the first time we’ve not practiced the day before a game, but this is also the first time we’ve gone to Alaska.”
It was also the first time a team from Georgia had gone north and won the Alaska Airlines Classic, held at West High in the state’s largest city.
“The tournament was great,” said West High coach Antonio Wyche, whose team, the Alaska Class AAAA state runner-ups, lost to the Vikings by one point in the semifinals. “East Hall played really well and I think they enjoyed themselves.
“We enjoy bringing up different teams from different locations in the lower 48.”
East Hall won three games at the tournament, all over Alaska teams, capped off by an 87-74 win over Class AAAA defending Alaska state champs Bartlett High (which had defeated the other two out-of-state teams) in the title game Saturday night. Senior J.C. Hampton continued his sterling season with a 39-point, 10-rebound effort in the title game.
“J.C., he’s having a great year, and he continued it up there,” Dix said on Monday as he and the players recovered from the trip. “In the championship game he was lights out. He’s had three or four of those this season and six 30-plus point games for us.”
It was a chance for a team from Georgia to show a surprisingly basketball-crazed state how the game is played by one of Hall County’s best.
“A lot of people started cheering for us, they referred to us as Georgia, they said go Georgia,” Dix said. “It was an absolutely fun time, a good crowd — they love their basketball.”
The tournament was also a chance for the Vikings to get some measure of redemption after losing to Gainesville in the Lanierland tournament back in December.
“Before the (championship) game my teammates and I were saying that we still had a bad taste in our mouths,” Hampton said. “We didn’t want to lay an egg in a tournament championship game again.
“We’re definitely getting better.”
It wasn’t an easy championship to win — Alaska has a rich heritage of basketball considering how few people live throughout the vast expanses of the state, where two of the in-state teams still had to travel more than 1,000 miles to reach Anchorage.
“All of (the local teams) had a player that could really shoot the ball. A few teams didn’t have football, so the players play all year round,” Dix said. “It’s really the biggest sport is what they told us.”
The reason is due in large part to a couple of star natives, including former Kansas star and current Miami Heat point guard Mario Chalmers, who played at Bartlett, Chicago Bulls forward Carlos Boozer, who played high school ball at Juneau High and Trajan Langdon of East High, who starred at Duke and with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Those three players have probably done more to put Alaska on the map and made the sport popular,” Dix said.
The tournament at West High has added on to the sport’s popularity.
“Basketball is very popular here,” Wyche said. “And with the tournament, it’s making it more nationally known.”
The fact that it’s a sport played indoors probably doesn’t hurt basketball’s popularity; Dix noted that the temperature never rose above 16 degrees Fahrenheit for the duration of their stay.
The weather, at least in January, was one of the few stereotypes of Alaska that Hampton saw was, indeed, accurate.
“It was really cold,” he said. “It was -3 degrees when we landed.”
It also snowed 18-22 inches during the time the Vikings were there. Dix said what surprised the players most was that nothing was shut down due to the snow.
One thing that wasn’t much different was the basketball itself, although Hampton noted that, unlike in Georgia, in Alaska the players play the sport all year long.
It wasn’t just a basketball trip.
Not only did the East Hall players hit the court at West High, they spent a day at the school and attended an Alaskan Heritage class as well as a creative dance class.
The players also spent time at a museum downtown and braved the cold to see some of the wilderness outside the town.
“The kids took advantage of it and I’m sure they’ll remember it for their lifetimes,” Dix said.
Already, the Vikings have dived right back into the 8-AA North schedule. East Hall beat Fannin County 70-34 on Tuesday and will be back at home Friday against a tough Rabun County team.
But even as the Vikings get back into the normal routine, the players, coaches and nearly 30 fans who also made the trip have an incredible experience to look back on.
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” Dix said. “And the kids got a full dose of real Alaska.”