February 20, 2013

Home and home: Northwest basketball boys and girls host state games tonight

TUNNEL HILL — Despite the fact that area schools are on winter break this week, the basketball teams at Northwest Whitfield High have an advantage most of the other teams in the state basketball tournaments don’t have — following a routine.

With both the Bruins and Lady Bruins serving as host teams in the first round of the Class 4A tournaments, the school was able to set up the girls-boys doubleheader that is typical of the regular season but rare in the playoffs.

Both will face Atlanta schools. The Lady Bruins, the No. 2 seed from Region 7, will play host to Region 6 No. 3 seed Marist at 6 tonight. The Bruins, the Region 7 champions, will take on Region 7 No. 4 seed Grady in the nightcap.

“I think that it is huge,” Bruins coach Ryan Richards said. “It will be a typical night for us. We will have our regular routine, and just being at home is huge. We are excited to get it. I think that it is really big, and they have to travel and that is a long ride from Grady to Northwest Georgia. It is a good feeling to have.”

Typically in the state tournament, girls playoff games are on a set day with the corresponding round of boys games on the following day. But if a school has both boys and girls teams which are hosting in the same round, the GHSA allows teams to schedule a doubleheader if the opposing teams are agreeable. Richards hopes it works well in his team’s favor.

“I know we are on the break this week, but I hope we have a big crowd and all of our student crazies show up,” Richards said. “It should be a lot of fun and a good atmosphere.”

Despite the familiar surroundings for the Bruins (23-3), they face a formidable task against Grady (18-8). Center Brandon Watkins is 6 foot, 9 inches, and the Grey Knights also have starters who are 6-6 and 6-4. Northwest’s tallest player is O’Shea Hill, who’s 6-3.

Grady also comes from one of the toughest regions in the class, based on state rankings.

“They are all pretty good,” Richards said. “We will have to deal with some height we haven’t had to deal with in the regular season. They press and mix it up quite a bit. I talked with the South Atlanta coach, and when they decide to play, they are as good as anyone in the state.”

Dealing with that height and keeping the Grey Knights off of the boards will be a big key in Northwest’s chances to make it to the second round.

“Having help on the boards will be a big factor,” Richards said. “Our kids have been really hard-nosed about that. They understand the techniques and will have to execute that. We are excited. We will play our game and do what we do and come after them. We have won 23 games for a reason. It will be a war, and we know that.”

Hill has been Northwest’s leading scorer this season, but the Bruins have consistently proven to be a multidimensional team.

“We are shooting the ball pretty well overall,” Richards said. “We struggled in the first half against Dalton in the region championship game, but then we got hot. I think overall we are relaxed and just playing our game. The thing I am most pleased with is our maturity and our confidence.”

The Lady Bruins (19-8) face an equally tough task against Marist (17-6), with the Lady Eagles coming from perhaps the top overall high school athletic program in the state. The private school has won the state athletic director’s cup for its classification — the award is based on postseason performances in all sports — 13 years in a row.

“Just the name Marist, you think about quality athletics in every sport,” Northwest girls coach Greg Brown said. “Our kids realize that, and we look forward to the opportunity and the challenge of playing them.”

But the one thing Marist will not bring to the game is a towering presence in the paint. Brown said he feels like the matchups on the floor play to his team’s strengths.

“They are really balanced,” Brown said. “They don’t have a ton of height. I feel like we match up well. Athletically, we are very comparable. We are just going to have to play.”

The Lady Bruins have been led in scoring by Autumn Blackwell, who averages 11 points per game, and Halle Ford and Caitlyn Wade, who are both averaging 10. Three other players are averaging around eight points a game.

“I think our balance is huge,” Brown said. “It has been a great help to us. It is harder to defend when you have three or four that can score. You can’t just get your focus on one of our kids, because we have several that can score on a given night.”

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