“They get after you.”
“A little bit wild.”
That’s how North Murray High School boys basketball players and their coach summed up Woodward Academy, their opponent in today’s second round of the Class 3A state tournament.
The Mountaineers (22-7) will head just south of Atlanta to College Park for a 6 p.m. tipoff with the War Eagles (24-5), who are ranked sixth in Class 3A by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The winner will earn a spot in next week’s quarterfinals and need three more victories to claim a state title.
The main concern for North Murray coach Tim Ellis is how his team will handle Woodward’s up-and-down tempo and threatening full-court, man-to-man defense.
The scheme preys off backcourt traps and turnovers — something that worked for the Region 6 champions in a 51-39 win against Region 7 No. 4 seed Dawson County in Wednesday’s opening round.
“They get after you,” said Ellis, whose Mountaineers — Region 5’s No. 2 seed — beat Region 8 No. 3 seed Hart County 69-58 during the first round on Wednesday in Chatsworth.
“We’ve been working against pressure all year a little bit to get ready if we made a run in the tournament and had to face somebody (like Woodward). The biggest thing you have to do is ... keep the floor spaced and not panic.”
Said North Murray senior post Zach Vess: “They’re aggressive. They’re going to try and speed us up and pressure us.”
Against Dawson County, the War Eagles led 34-31 entering the fourth quarter but only allowed eight points in the final period. It was just the latest demonstration of power for a defense that has been strong all season.
“They held a team to what, seven points? Eight points?” senior forward Brady Swilling said of Woodward’s 71-9 win against Cross Keys during the Region 6-3A tournament earlier this month. “So they’ll be pretty defensive.”
Woodward has allowed just 45.7 points per game this year, with the most coming in an early 64-60 loss to Greenforest Christian, which is 23-4 and in the Class A tournament. The performance against Cross Keys was the War Eagles’ defensive high point.
“We have variety,” Woodward coach Anthony Thomas said. “In the win against Dawson County we were able to create some turnovers. I wouldn’t say that’s our main calling card, though.”
North Murray also prides itself on defense, and some of the Mountaineers’ statistics are identical to Woodward’s. North Murray has also allowed an average of 45.7 points per game; like Woodward, the Mountaineers have given up 60 or more points in just five of 29 games this season.
The contrast is North Murray mostly uses half-court defenses.
“They kind of get after you the complete opposite of how we do,” Ellis said. “We’re going to do our thing defensively. They do their thing by playing full court. A little bit wild. Speeding up the game. They do it that way, which if you have the athletes to do it, then it can be very effective.”
Woodward’s roster includes 6-foot-7-inch post Solomon Mangham. The War Eagles’ starting lineup Wednesday was: 6-0 guards Benjamin Russell and Corey Hicks; 6-4 forwards Trey Williams and 6-4 Christian Harrison; and 6-5 post Max LeFar.
North Murray’s tallest player is Vess, who’s 6-5. But height isn’t what grabs Ellis’ attention when talking about the War Eagles.
“The difference is how much basketball they play in the offseason,” Ellis said. “They’re playing year-round, and that makes a difference. Some of our guys do. Not all of our guys do. I want our guys to be well-rounded. I want them to play baseball, football, have a childhood.”
The War Eagles’ region title this season is their first since 1997, and they’re hoping a roster that includes six seniors helps bring the program its first state championship. One indication they might be prepared for a good run is that in three meetings this season with 10th-ranked St. Pius X — which is also in the second round — the War Eagles won twice, including in the region championship.
North Murray has had its share of tough opponents, too. The Mountaineers faced nine teams — a total of 16 games — who made the state tournament in their respective classifications. Four of the teams — Cartersville, Calhoun, Gordon Central and Meadowcreek — advanced to the second round. Cartersville, which beat North Murray for the Region 5-3A title — one of three victories against the Mountaineers this season for the Purple Hurricanes — is ranked fourth and hadn’t lost this year until the regular-season finale.
“Playing tough teams helps for the playoffs, but they’re the same way,” Thomas said of the Mountaineers. “They played Cartersville three times.”
And they wouldn’t mind seeing the Purple Hurricanes or Gordon Central a fourth time, because that would mean they’d stuck around a while. Throughout the season, North Murray has listed different goals. Hosting and winning a state tournament game were separate ambitions, and both have been checked off the list.
Now Ellis — who led the third-year varsity program to its first state tournament victory in his first season as coach — wants his team aiming for more.
“One of our goals was to win the region championship,” he said. “That didn’t happen. But another of our goals was to host (during the state tournament) and win in the first round to make it to the sweet 16. After that, I told them we’d evaluate our goals from here on out.”