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Class AA Basketball Championship Preview
Laney, 30-0, Region 3B
The Laney Wildcats are after the program's first state title and have plenty of motivation after watching the boys win the Class AA GHSA basketball championship last year. Laney, which last Saturday upended previously-undefeated Kendrick 67-44, is solid inside as seniors Simone Smith (6-foot-2) and Khadijiah Cave (6-foot-4) seemingly roam above the competition. Against Kendrick, Cave finished with 31 points and, in the opening quarter, blocked five shots. The skyscraping Cave has signed to play basketball at Baylor. Smith is a leader for the team that many teammates look to for motivation. She reached double figures in the win against Pelham, with most of her points coming early while the game still hung in the balance.
Head coach Otis Smart has plenty of firepower on the outside as well with guards Destiny Brewton, Aliyah Collier and Gemiya Bowman. Collier is a tireless defender while Bowman is an offensive spark despite being just a freshman. Junior Wynetta Wright can be counted on as a shutdown defender as the 6-foot-3 power forward locked in on Pelham's Briunna Freeman and shut down the Pelham standout in the second half of a 59-40 quarterfinals victory for Laney. This season, Laney has failed to score at least 60 points just three times and the team's closest margin of victory against an in-state opponent was six against Dublin. Since the end of the regular season, Laney steamrolled through the Region 3 tournament, dispatching Screven County and Dublin before pounding Toombs County to open up the state playoffs. Smart's Wildcats whipped Taylor County in the Sweet Sixteen before beating Pelham by 19 and Kendrick in the semifinals. The state finals is something new to Laney, as the program has never won a state title in the school's history and lost in the semifinals the last four seasons prior to this year's breakthrough.
Wesleyan, 27-4, Region 6
The Wesleyan Wolves are a dynasty with perhaps just one equal in the history of the GHSA. Jan Azar's team is searching for a sixth straight state championship and, should the Wolves pull off the feat, Wesleyan would match Hart County (1989-1994) as the only program to win six in a row. Azar's team is loaded with playmakers of every sort with a nice collection of seniors and underclassmen making up a lethal squad that has lost to just one in-state opponent.
Seniors Katie Frerking, Brittany Stevens, Kendra Talley, Taylor Blackmon, Paige Mosley and Cara Mia Tsirigos offer plenty of veteran presence to the team with sophomore Nikki McDonald and junior Landyn Duley also playing big parts this season. Frerking (Auburn), Talley (Presbyterian), Stevens (Samford), Blackmon (Kennesaw State) and Mosley (Towson) will all play basketball at the next level while Tsirigos (Indiana) will play softball in college. Frerking became the 10th player in Wesleyan history to post 1,000 career points with 31 against Bremen in a 75-27 victory in the second round of the playoffs. The feat is even more amazing considering Frerking missed her entire freshman season with an ACL injury and put up the 1,000 points over just three years. Frerking has been on fire all postseason, putting up 35 against Armuchee, 31 against Bremen, 26 against Calhoun and 29 in the semifinals against Thomasville. Despite her 5-foot-4 size, Stevens is a fearless point guard, constantly squeezing herself into the lane for important baskets or finding teammates with crisp passes for easy shots. Stevens had five assists in the 83-34 victory over Thomasville. McDonald and Duley will likely be the future of the Wolves' program but each is tossing in her fair share this year. McDonald and Duley both contributed eight points in the semifinal victory.
Greater Atlanta Christian, 28-3, Region 6
Eddie Martin has quickly put his fingerprints all over the Greater Atlanta Christian School program after arriving at the Norcross campus prior to the 2008-09 season. Since taking over, Martin guided the team to back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011 as well as a trip to the semifinals in 2009 and a spot in the quarterfinals last year. This season, Martin has the makings of another title team with plenty of inside muscle and some bombers from the outside.
Senior Collin Swinton has put together an impressive senior season out of the backcourt with sophomore Cameron Boyd a threat to pull the trigger on a 3-point attempt if he gets open. Troy Morrison is also capable of filling up the basket from the point guard position. Up front, senior Andrew Lewis is a big body that cleans up whatever mess the guards leave around the rim, but the superstar of the team is junior forward Isaiah Wilkins. The stepson of the legendary Georgia Bulldog and Atlanta Hawk Dominique, Wilkins has put together an incredible season, complete with a double-double average of points (16.3) and rebounds (10.7) per contest. He upped those numbers in the team's quarterfinal win over Manchester, finishing with 21 points, 19 rebounds and 10 blocks. In the semifinals against defending Class AA champion Laney, Wilkins tossed in 16 points while grabbing 14 rebounds, blocking three shots and altering many more. Swinton came to play as well with 14 points, right at his average (14.5) on the season after scoring 19 against Manchester. Junior Justin Lewis might be the featured option on other playoff teams, but as a role player for the Spartans, Lewis chipped in seven points while grabbing 10 rebounds in the victory over Laney.
Bleckley County, 28-3, Region 4
Cliff Kerbo's Bleckley County Royals had never made the state finals prior to edging past Jordan 64-62 in last Friday's semifinal victory to punch the program's first ticket to the Class AA championship game. Bleckley County rallied early against Jordan before eventually needing overtime to dispatch of the Red Jackets to move on. Senior Mario Beck has done everything asked of him this postseason, whether it is scoring early to set the pace or scoring late to help secure a victory. Beck finished with 33 points in Bleckley County's win over Jordan after notching 18 in the quarterfinals against Vidalia, 22 against Westside-Augusta in Round 2 and 22 against Thomasville to open the postseason. Rydealous Taylor has also come up big for Kerbo's Royals, netting 89 points through the first four rounds of the playoffs. His 27 points against Vidalia were necessary as the Indians tried to take away Beck, forcing the senior Taylor to create his own offense and get to the line to earn valuable free throw opportunities. Taylor can stroke from the free throw line, so look for him to continue to throw his body into opportunities to potentially draw fouls.
Should the game come down to a free throw shooting contest, the Royals would likely feel confident as the team has improved since shooting just 45-percent from the stripe in a loss to Taylor County in the region championship game. Bleckley County has played close games all season long with the recent exception being a 17-point victory in the first round of the state playoffs. Look for this talented senior class to receive plenty of opportunities to take control of the game and try to rekindle the magic the team found during a 21-game winning streak earlier this year.