East Hall vs. Columbia
When: 6:30 tonight
Records: East Hall (20-10); Columbia (24-5)
Seeds: East Hall No. 3 Region 7-AAA; Columbia No. 1 Region 5-AAA
Coaches: East Hall, Joe Dix. Columbia, Phillip McCrary.
Key players: East Hall, PG J.C. Hampton (5-11, So.); SG Kevin Blackwell (6-0, Sr.); PG Charles Perry (5-7, Sr.); C Chaz Cheeks (6-4, Jr.). Columbia, SF Jamil Saaka (6-6, Sr.); SG JerShon Cobb (6-5, Sr.); SG Jarmal Reid (6-6, So.).
As a sophomore, East Hall’s Charles Perry sat on the bench and watched his teammates shock the state by beating South Atlanta and its heralded junior Derek Favors in the first round of the Class AAA state playoffs.
Since then, Perry and the rest of the Vikings have longed for another chance to prove that East Hall still belongs in the conversation of best basketball programs in the state.
A win tonight just might do that.
After missing the playoffs last season for the first time in 16 years, the Vikings (20-10) have advanced to the second round of the Class AAA tournament and will play Columbia (24-5) at 6:30 tonight.
“Regardless of what happens, we’ve had a great year,” East Hall coach Joe Dix said. “We talked openly about getting the program back to where we belong, and we’ve achieved some of our goals and some we didn’t.
“If we get this one, it’ll satisfy the ones we missed.”
Beating a team like the Eagles won’t be easy. Their five losses — including one to basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy — all came against out-of-state teams, and Dix classifies their roster as filled with “6-foot-4 and 6-foot-8 guys.”
“They really have a talented team,” Dix said of Columbia, which is ranked No. 21 in the nation by USA Today. “They’re the best we’ve coached against in a while.”
Dix doesn’t have to go back to the South Atlanta game for strategies against top-notch teams, as the Vikings have played tough competition this year, including Class AAAAA’s Milton (25-4), Class A’s Wesleyan (21-6), and region foe North Hall (23-3).
“Pretty much everyone we played is in the state tournament,” Dix said. “We’ve seen size, athletic ability and pressure, and hopefully that’ll help.”
Senior Charles Perry thinks it will.
“We’ve played teams from the highest to the lowest,” said Perry, the team’s leading scorer. “That schedule got us ready for anything. We shouldn’t come out intimidated.”
That schedule, specifically the losses, also showed them what it takes to win.
“When we lost to Milton, we saw we could do better things,” sophomore J.C. Hampton said. “We know how to beat better teams.”
It all starts with practice and simulation, and while East Hall doesn’t have the bevy of athletes of Columbia, it does have a way to prepare.
“We went 7-on-5 and pretty much had a tackling drill,” Dix said on how he’s preparing his team to face a suffocating trap. “We had our guys slap at the ball, bump the ballhandler; everything we saw them get away with on film.”
What he also saw on film were athletes like 6-foot-6 Jarmal Reid, who scored 18 points against Oak Hill, and JerShon Cobb, who scored 25 against Oak Hill and is averaging 17.6 points, four assists and 6.2 rebounds per game.
“They feed off Cobb,” Dix said of the 6-5 wing who is committed to Northwestern.
To combat Cobb, as well as the rest of the Eagles, Dix will rely on his depth and ability to substitute five players at a time.
“The intensity early on will cause us to sub,” Dix said. “But the five guys they’re putting on the floor are as good as our five, but bigger.”
The Eagles might be bigger, but it’s hard to imagine they are as determined as this group of Vikings who strive to get East Hall basketball back to the top.
“Every time I walk in the gym, I picture me having something up (in the rafters), so when I get older and come back I can look back and say I was a part of that team,” Hampton said.