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Intrigue builds as high school basketball playoffs get underway this week
Hall County home to postseason favorites, plucky underdogs seeking upsets
Gainesville small forward KJ Buffen (5) jumps with the ball during the region 8-6A game between Gainesville and Lanier in Gainesville, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. - photo by David Barnes
Flowery Branch point guard Ashley Woodroffe (11) dribbles downcourt during the region 8-5A girls championship game between Flowery Branch and Buford in Gainesville, on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. Buford defeated Flowery Branch 49-41 and will go on to the state tournament. - photo by David Barnes

Playoff schedule

Friday’s games

West Hall girls at Madison County, 6 p.m.

Buford girls vs. Kell, 6 p.m.

Gainesville girls at Northview, 7 p.m.

East Hall girls vs. Hart County, 7 p.m.

Flowery Branch girls vs. Rome, 7 p.m.

Buford boys vs. Cass, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday’s games

North Hall girls at Morgan County, 5:30 p.m.

Gainesville boys vs. Pope, 6 p.m.

Chestatee girls at Jefferson, 6 p.m.

East Hall boys at Hart County, 6 p.m.

Flowery Branch boys at Villa Rica, 6 p.m.

White County boys at St. Pius, 7 p.m.

North Hall boys at Morgan County, 7 p.m.

West Hall boys at Jefferson, 7:30 p.m.

Region basketball tournaments have come and gone, leaving most area high schools team with a clear picture of their paths to a state championship.

For the three local squads that won their region tournaments and earned a No. 1 playoff seed, the road to glory is a favorable one. Four more area teams will open the state tournament with a home game, while the other 10 that reached the postseason must win on the road in the first round to keep their state championship hopes alive.

The Lakeview Academy boys and girls teams, along with Riverside Military, await the release of today’s Class A Private power ratings that will determine their playoff matchups.

With the girls tournament starting Friday and most boys teams playing Saturday, here’s a look at three of the biggest story lines facing area schools as they prepare for the playoffs.

ROLLING RED ELEPHANTS

The top-seeded Gainesville boys have won 17 straight games heading into the state tournament.

If they can push that streak to 22, they’ll have a state championship to show for it.

Five more victories separate the Red Elephants (20-6), who haven’t lost since Dec. 20, from claiming a state title. Gainesville has recently been in the running for championships only to experience devastatingly close losses in each of the last three playoffs.

Last year, the Red Elephants fell to eventual Class 6A state champion Langston Hughes in the quarterfinals, 72-69. They made second-round exits the two seasons prior to that, losing the pair of games by a combined four points.

Gainesville again enters the tournament as a favorite to win it all thanks to a strong senior class headlined by Middle Tennessee State signee KJ Buffen, among other college-caliber players. But the Red Elephants’ biggest asset is their depth, with coach Benjie Wood often rolling out five-man platoons of athletic players whose trademark is smothering defense.

After going 3-6 against a brutal early-season schedule featuring a few out-of-state teams, Gainesville cruised to its second straight Lanierland championship before flattening its region competition. Wood’s team even picked up a thrilling win at Class 5A’s top-ranked Buford.

Now the Red Elephants will look to finish the job and bring home a state championship, starting with a home game against No. 4 seed Pope at 6 p.m. Saturday.

TESTS FOR NO. 2

While the Flowery Branch and East Hall girls were certainly relieved to earn first-round home playoff games, they ended up with perhaps two of the toughest draws of any second-seeded team in the state.

The Lady Falcons (22-5) begin the playoffs against No. 3 seed Rome, one of three teams that finished with 20-plus wins out of the loaded Region 7-5A. 

The Lady Vikings (16-12), meanwhile, will take on Hart County (19-8) in the first round. Hart County, which shares a region with undefeated Franklin County, had to settle for a No. 3 seed after losing by just one point in the Region 8-3A tournament semifinals.

Rome presents an early stumbling block for Flowery Branch, which advanced to the state semifinals for the first time in school history a season ago. 

But the Lady Falcons have held their own against Class 5A’s best several times this season, beating Rome’s region mate Carrollton in the second game of the season and most recently falling to defending state champion Buford by only eight points in the Region 8-5A title game.

East Hall will have to pass an early test against Hart County if it hopes to win its first playoff game since 2015, when it advanced all the way to the state semifinals.

UPSET ALERT

While Hall County is home to a few early-round playoff favorites, there are also several lower-seeded teams hoping to make a splash with a first-round upset.

Among them is the third-seeded Flowery Branch boys squad, who open state at No. 2 seed Villa Rica (24-2). Despite their playoff opponent’s nearly spotless record, the Falcons (17-11) showed they could hang with Class 5A’s big boys when top-ranked Buford needed a last-second shot to beat them in the Region 8-5A tournament semifinals.

Then there’s the No. 3 seed West Hall girls (17-10), who can never be counted out with 2,000-point scorer Anna McKendree on the court. The Lady Spartans have a first-round matchup against second-seeded Madison County (20-6).

And it would be unwise to overlook the third-seeded East Hall boys, who missed out on a chance to beat eventual Region 7-3A champion Greater Atlanta Christian for the second time this season when they lost in overtime the region tournament semifinals.

The Vikings (15-11) have a favorable first-round matchup despite having to travel to face No. 2 seed Hart County (15-12).

North Hall’s girls team (14-12), another No. 3 seed, also looks to have gotten a nice draw against second-seeded Morgan County (12-14). The West Hall boys (11-15), after winning the third-place game of the Region 7-4A tournament in overtime, are hoping to be another upset contender against No. 2 seed Jefferson (17-10).

The North Hall boys, Gainesville girls and Chestatee girls are No. 4 seeds out of Hall County seeking first-round stunners against region champions.

Regional events