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University of North Georgia benefiting from top local talent in men's basketball program
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University of North Georgia guard Tyler Dominy, a Dawson County High graduate, goes to the basket during a game in Dahlonega this season. - photo by For The Times

Chris Faulkner didn’t have much difficulty recruiting Hall County and the surrounding areas in 2013.

The University of North Georgia men’s basketball coach could often attend one game and see a few of his prospects in action. Take for instance when Ethan “Ebo” Smith’s North Hall squad faced region rivals Tyler Dominy and Dawson County, or when Gainesville star Shaquan Cantrell squared off with either one in the occasional local matchup.

Those convenient recruiting trips have paid off for Faulkner. He eventually landed all three players, who as juniors have emerged as the Nighthawks’ three leading scorers this season.

Cantrell (18.3 points per game), Dominy (13.2) and Smith (11.9) were accounting for nearly half of UNG’s points heading into Monday night’s game against Lander University. After the Nighthawks went 4-5 in a rough non-conference schedule, the local trio has North Georgia on the upswing early in Peach Belt Conference play.

“We always try to recruit local guys. I think it helps our program to do that,” Faulkner said. “I’ve had my eye on these three guys since early on in their high school careers. We just got lucky. Four years ago, we got all of them here, and it has all kind of come into place pretty well for us.”

Using their complementary playing styles, the three guards have formed the core of the PBC’s second-best offense.

Smith has hit 24 of 56 3-pointers to stretch the floor and open lanes for Cantrell and Dominy, players Faulkner said have similar skill sets and love penetrating toward the basket. The coach said Cantrell and Dominy being on the floor together — a pairing that hadn’t occurred much before this season — has “opened up both of their games.”

“I think we just know how to play with each other,” Cantrell said. “I feel like we have great chemistry.”

“We definitely have a chemistry from playing with each other for a long time,” Dominy said. “I think we know each other’s spots and where we like the ball, and we’re able to get there easily within the offense.”

But all three players were familiar with each other long before they arrived on campus in Dahlonega.

In addition to being region rivals, Dominy and Smith played together on the same AAU team. They knew Cantrell, a first team All-State selection and one of Hall County’s most dominant players at the time, from their meetings on the court.

One such meeting is still a subject of conversation.

“Me and Shaquan always get into it in the locker room over who was the better team,” Smith said with a laugh. “I’ll always say that we won the last time we played each other.”

Smith is referring to North Hall’s 72-70 overtime win against Gainesville in the 2012 Lanierland tournament semifinals. He scored 39 points in the dramatic victory, while Cantrell tallied 24 in a game two of the Nighthawks’ leading scorers still remember.

That titanic Hall County showdown featured two of the state’s best teams that season — Gainesville lost by four points in the Class AAAAA state championship game, while North Hall reached the Class AAA Final Four. Dominy’s Dawson County team also made an appearance in the Class AAA playoffs.

All three players participated in the 2013 North Georgia All-Star Classic, which pitted the best seniors from Hall County against their peers from the surrounding area. It was the first time Cantrell and Smith suited up as teammates.

Smith won the boys 3-point shootout at the event, while Dominy claimed the slam dunk contest.

“Four years ago was a really, really good year for this area,” Faulkner said. “There’s no doubt that being able to tap into that helps our program.”

That’s already apparent about a month into the season. Faulkner said Cantrell, Dominy and Smith’s offensive chemistry has made coaching that side of the ball “easy” for him.

This is the first season each member of the local trio has played a prominent role. Dominy and Smith redshirted as freshman in 2013-14, while Cantrell immediately contributed with 8.9 points per game.

The former two became more integral players last season, during which coaches tagged Cantrell with a medical redshirt due to shoulder surgery.

Now they’re part of a junior class that’s leading North Georgia in production, a goal they sometimes talked about during their days as high school rivals.

“When (Cantrell and I) played against each other, we kind of talked after the game and said we were really looking forward to playing with each other,” Smith said. “And every time I played Tyler in the region games, we always kind of discussed it after.”

Faulkner was looking forward to that, as well.

His 2013 signings from Hall County are a big reason why the Nighthawks are in line to match their 2015-16 win total (seven) well before the halfway point of the season. Cantrell, Dominy and Smith are pacing North Georgia’s on the court and validating Faulkner’s recruiting tactics off it.

“That’s always been an emphasis of ours — we want to recruit local guys,” Faulkner said. “Hall County and this area for the past few years have been pretty rich with talent.”

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