Class AAAA blog: Championship Preview

The 2019 state championships will take place this Friday at the Macon Centreplex. The Spalding and Carver-Columbus girls will tipoff at 11 a.m. and the Americus-Sumter and Carver-Columbus boys will tipoff at 1 p.m. Here is a look at all four of this year’s Class AAAA state finalists.

The Spalding girls’ run to its first-ever state championship last season featured a brand of defense that has appeared to be even more effective this season as the program aims to complete its bid for back-to-back titles. The Jags limited opponents to just 49.2 points per game during last year’s title run. This year, the program has held its four playoff opponents to a combined 31.25 ppg. After defeating Thomson 57-40 in the first round, Spalding jumped out to a 20-3 lead on Hardaway and closed out a 61-27 victory in the Sweet 16. Spalding matched up with Marist in the quarterfinals and held the War Eagles to just four points in the final quarter to leave with a 36-30 victory. In the semifinals, Spalding led Luella 23-22 at the half, but outscored the Lions 27-6 in the second half to score a 50-28 victory.

“I am blessed with athletic girls who are quick and fast,” said coach Tykira Gilbert. “I use that to my advantage on the defensive end teaching the defensive principles that I grew up on. The girls bought into it. I’ve been preaching defense since I’ve been there and it finally settled in. That is our M.O., defense.

Junior Corriana Evans supplies Spalding with a reliable scoring threat and she led the Jags with a game-high 17 points in the semifinals. Aniaya Jester finished with 13 points, Kierstyn Milner added seven points and Kayla Milner finished with six. Jester paced Spalding with 23 points in the first round win over Thomson. It was Evans that came up clutch on the championship stage a year ago, leading the way with 19 points and 17 rebounds as Spalding defeated Henry County 58-46.

The Carver-Columbus girls are 31-0 features an offense that is averaging 74.3 points per game this season. This gives the Tigers an interesting showdown with a defensive-minded Spalding team hasn’t allowed a single opponent to eclipse the 60-point mark this year. Carver-Columbus gets the bulk of its offensive production from four-star junior forward Olivia Cochran. The prized prospect is as effective scoring points as she is rebounding and defending with her 6-foot-3 frame. Cochran opened the playoffs with a 24-point performance against Druid Hills that put her over the 1,500 career point mark. Cochran led the way with 21 points in the quarterfinals as Carver-Columbus cruised past Heritage-Catoosa 71-43. Carver-Columbus next faced a dangerous Flowery Branch team in the semifinals. Flowery Branch was able to stay in striking distance for much of the game, but Carver-Columbus was too much for the Falcons and left Fort Valley with a 74-70 victory. Olivia Cochran led with 29 points, Kionna Gaines contributed 19 points, Ja-Nya Love-Hill scored 12 and Jailyn Shaw added 10. Despite the balanced offensive production shown by the undefeated Tigers in their semifinal victory, head coach Anson Hundley noticed many areas of improvement that the will look to clean up before facing Spalding in the finals.

“Ultimately, we just have to continue to do what we do,” explained Hundley after the semifinals. “We have to get teams out of their element and hope they miss some shots. Flowery Branch, they didn’t miss many tonight. We missed a million free throws, we missed layups. We did everything we could possibly do to lose the game. But we found a way. That’s just a sign of a team maturing and getting better. And we will have to get better.”

The Americus-Sumter boys have left a trail of toppled Class AAAA giants to reach the championship stage. The Panthers defeated Slam 72-50 in the first round and then went on the road to face two-time defending state champion Upson-Lee next. Despite trailing by double-digits on three separate occasions, Americus-Sumter was able to pull away at the end and advance with a 59-53 victory. Forward Joshua Lusane’s performance against Upson-Lee big-man Travon Walker marked the start of a breakout postseason for the 6-foot-7 team captain. Lusane put up 22 points and 10 rebounds against the Knights and then followed it with a 21 and 13 in the quarterfinals against St. Pius. The Panthers’ 63-46 win over St. Pius featured an overwhelming defensive effort that held St. Pius to just 13 points at the half. Americus-Sumter met a red-hot Sandy Creek team in the semifinals and used the same defensive intensity to score a hard-fought 63-56 win.

“We hang our hats on being a defensive-minded team,” said head coach Michael Hoffpauir. “I think that’s one of the things that has gotten us over the hump. All these teams we had to play against Salem, Upson Lee, St. Pius and, of course, Sandy Creek. They’re big teams, strong teams, very good and very solid in what they do. But, our defense and toughness got us over the hump.”

Americus-Sumter led Carver-Columbus 33-25 at the half when the Region 1 rivals squared off back on Feb. 8, but were outscored 21-11 in the third quarter and eventually fell 55-54 to earn the No. 2 seed.

The Carver-Columbus boys are familiar with Americus-Sumter opponent and looks to grab its first state title since 1971. The Tigers have already met the Panthers on four occasions this season and have emerged victorious in the last three head-to-heads. The same defensive intensity that has lifted Carver-Columbus past Americus-Sumter in each of the last three meetings has been seen throughout the Tigers’ impressive postseason run. After a 79-64 win over Druid Hills in the opening round, Carver-Columbus has held Howard, Cartersville and Woodward Academy to an average of 48 points per game in the latest three rounds. Leading Carver-Columbus is senior guard A.J. Watts and senior forward Jalen King. This duo was outstanding in the Tigers’ 58-50 win over Woodward Academy and provided 49 of the team’s 58 points. Watts led with his game-high 28 points, which included a gym rattling dunk over Woodward Academy’s seven-footer Walker Kessler just before the half. This swagger and fearlessness is the staple of Watts’ game and fuels the attitude that Tigers bring to the hardwood.

“Its just a blessing to coach a group of guys that I had a chance to coach this year,” said Carver-Columbus coach Warren Beaulah after the semifinals. “Especially a guy like A.J. Watts. He is a special kid. You don’t get them many times in your coaching career. He has been our go-to man all year and he didn’t let us down tonight. We could have thrown it in a couple of times, but he said that we were going to win this game. And that’s what we did.”