Class AAA blog: Pace Academy boys, Johnson-Savannah girls are playing to form early in the basketball season

Brandon Lindsey celebrates Johnson's second-straight state championship.
Brandon Lindsey celebrates Johnson's second-straight state championship.

Credit: Photo: Chip Saye

Credit: Photo: Chip Saye

Pace Academy's boys basketball team won back-to-back titles in 2016 in Class AA and in 2017 in Class AAA, and it appears that the Knights, led by head coach Sharman White, are poised to make another run.

Ranked No. 1, Pace (10-3, 5-0) is coming off a 54-52 victory against Oxford (Ala.) in the War Eagle Classic at Woodward Academy on Saturday. The victory was Pace's third consecutive victory after losing to Bloom (Ill.) in the Chicago Elite Classic, 84-54.

Matthew Cleveland, a 6-foot-6, 183-pound shooting guard, is the No. 2 overall recruit in Georgia for the junior class and No. 3 shooting guard, nationally, according to 247Sports, which lists him as a four-star recruit. He leads the team with 22 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two assists per game. Junior power forward Cole Middleton compliments Cleveland's size at 6-6, 225. Middleton leads the team with nearly 10 rebounds per game and adds 12 points and two blocks.

Pace will spend its holiday at the NXT Level Hoops Fest in Nashville, Tenn., where it is scheduled to face Tennessee school Briarcrest Christian on Friday. The Knights will host Cedar Grove in a Region 5 game Jan. 7, its first game back in Georgia. 

Here are some other boys teams to watch:

-- No. 2 Dawson County (11-2, 4-0): After Losing to Camp Jewell House 64-57 on Dec. 20, Dawson righted the ship with an 81-50 victory against Tallulah Falls on Saturday in the Lakeview Academy Invitational. The Tigers will travel to the Bobcat Classic in Bluffton, S.C., and are scheduled to face Tennessee's David Crockett school Thursday.

-- No. 3 Johnson-Savannah (9-2, 6-0): The Atomsmashers will travel to Paine College in Augusta for the Holiday Round Ball Classic on Dec. 26-28 after losing to Windsor Forest in the SCCPSS Holiday Classic, 61-56, Saturday. Johnson will host Windsor Forest on Jan. 3 in its first game home and will be afforded a chance to avenge just its second loss of the season.

-- No. 4 Hart County (9-0, 4-0): Hart is undefeated and still carrying a sour taste in its mouth after a 68-54 loss to Morgan County last season's championship game. There's a lot to like from the team's early performances. The Bulldogs are coming off a 70-33 victory against Elbert County on Saturday and will face Cross Keys in the 12th Annual McDonald's Shootout on Friday at home. 

Boys Class AAA rankings

1. Pace Academy
2. Dawson County
3. Johnson-Savannah
4. Hart County
5. Windsor Forest
6. Monroe
7. Franklin County
8. Westminster
9. Murray County
10. Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe

On the girls side, Brandon Lindsey has the Johnson Atomsmashers (9-1, 5-0) in a familiar spot, at the top of the poll and in the hunt for his third consecutive basketball championship. Johnson defeated Hart County 54-50 in last season's championship game. In 2017, Johnson beat Greater Atlanta Christian 62-50 to capture its first state championship.

The Atomsmashers are coming off a 53-36 victory against No. 2 Beach in the classic rivalry of the two Savannah programs. It was the second victory against the Bulldogs after Johnson opened the season with a 60-57 victory at home.

A trio of senior captains – Jaida Burgess, Marylashia Westbrook and Antalazia Baker – provide championship experience. Burgess leads with 15 points per game, Westbrook adds 12 points per game and Baker averages 11 points per game. Johnson's only loss came to Class AAAAAA No. 4 Glynn Academy on Nov. 25. Since then, Johnson has won seven games, including blowout victories against Southeast Bulloch (80-22) and Groves (82-17) last week.

Johnson will host Windsor Forest on Jan. 3 and travel to Islands on Jan. 4 before a rematch against Beach at home on Jan. 7.

Here are some other teams to watch:

-- No. 2 Beach (11-4, 6-1): Junior Kaila Rougier and senior Madison Evans return for a Bulldogs program that was riding an eight-game winning streak before its loss to Johnson on Saturday. Beach will be tested against Class A Private No. 4 Holy Innocents' in the Big South Shootout on Friday and Class AAAAAA No. 2 Forest Park on Saturday.

-- No. 3 Jefferson (12-2, 4-0): Jefferson lost out in the quarterfinal round of the state playoffs to eventual-champion Johnson 48-32 last season and the Dragons are primed for another deep run in the state bracket. Jefferson is coming off a 54-43 loss to Class AAAAAAA North Forsyth on Friday and will compete in the Christmas Classic at North Oconee on Friday and Saturday.

-- No. 4 Fannin County (10-3, 3-2): The Rebels are resurging in AAA, and its No. 4 spot in the poll is warranted. In 2018, Fannin County finished 7-18, 3-9 and missed the playoffs. At this time last season, the team was 6-8 and headed toward 10 consecutive losses. In last season's Mistletoe Madness at North Murray, the Rebels went 0-2 with losses to North Murray (52-47) and Northwest Whitfield (67-33). This year, Fannin defeated North Murray 44-40 and Ooltewah (Tenn.) 46-28 at the Mistletoe. Fannin will travel to Hiawassee Dam, (N.C.) on Jan. 3, Gilmer on Jan. 4 and No. 5 GAC on Jan. 7.

Girls Class AAA rankings

1. Johnson-Savannah
2. Beach
3. Jefferson
4. Fannin County
5. Greater Atlanta Christian
6. Lumpkin County
7. Dawson County
8. Coachulla Creek
9. Cedar Grove
10. Westminster

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