Class AAAA state championship primer

The Class 4A state championships are right around the corner. On Saturday, March 10 at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, Henry County and Spalding will tipoff at 2:00 PM for the girls final and St. Pius and Upson-Lee will follow with a 4:00 championship tipoff in the boys game. These are guaranteed to be outstanding matchups and an exciting end to the 2017-18 season. Below is a brief outlook on each of the four finalists and what they have done to make it this far.

Upson-Lee Knights (30-0)

Upson-Lee survived an intense 52-51 battle with Sandy Creek in the semifinals that extended its winning streak to 62 games and set up a finals rematch with St. Pius. The Knights took down St. Pius 53-48 a year ago at McCamish Pavilion and clinched their first-ever state title in the process. Tye Fagan was a junior and finished with a team-high 20 points, five rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Fagan’s incredible 2017 campaign earned him Class 4A Player of the Year and he returned this season to a lead a team that was only losing two senior contributors. Fagan has continued to provide the Knights with a consistent super star throughout their two season-long winning streak and is arguably the best guard in the state. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard lifted the Knights past Sandy Creek in semifinals with his game-high 23 points, while surpassing the 2,000-point mark for his career. Travon Walker is Upson-Lee’s junior big man and a 6-foot-6, double-double machine. Walker netted 13 points in Upson-Lee’s 53-44 win over Salem in the second round and added 20 rebounds and six blocks. In addition to Fagan and Walker, Upson-Lee boasts guards Zyrice Scott and Cameron Traylor, and senior JaCorey Smith. Smith chipped in 14 points and five rebounds in the semifinals and Scott lit up Mary Persons with 31 points in the Region 2-AAAA championship on Feb. 9. Head coach Darrell Lockhart knows how tough it has been to maintain this unprecedented level of success and has kept this group patient and driven on their return to the finals. Lockhart also has instilled a defensive pride in his players that is stitched into their U-L identity.

St. Pius Golden Lions (28-3)

St. Pius defeated Baldwin 66-61 in the semifinals to set up their rematch with the defending champs. The Golden Lions opened up a 10-0 lead on Baldwin before the Braves got going. Quick starts like this have been characteristic of St. Pius’s current playoff run; the Golden Lions opened up a 15-0 lead and led White County 38-11 before posting a 76-34 win in the first round. The other trend has been lights out shooting by Everett Lane and he came up big in the semis by connected on seven 3-pointers and leading all scorers with 25 points. Troy Stephens finished with 11 points and also helped hold off the Braves in the second half.

“We have guys, the moment’s not too big for them,” St. Pius head coach Aaron Parr told the AJC after the victory. “They’re just clutch kids, and they responded to Baldwin giving us everything we wanted and more.”

When Lane heats up, the Golden Lions are incredibly dangerous and Upson-Lee saw this last year as his shooting was the only thing keeping St. Pius in the game after their dreadful shooting in the first two quarters. St. Pius managed just 14 points in the first half of last year’s championship and was 4-for-22 from the field and 2-for-10 on 3-pointers when they opened the third quarter trailing 27-14. Lane drilled a trio of 3-pointers in the third quarter to spark an 11-3 run and suddenly the Knights’ lead had shrunk to four points. Upson-Lee pulled away, but Lane ended up leading all scorers with 29 points and was 7-of-15 from beyond the arc while his teammates went 1-of-8 from distance.

Henry County Warhawks (29-1)

Henry County used a 16-5 run in the final 4:37 of their 51-38 semifinal win over Americus-Sumter to close out the Panthers. The Warhawks led the entire game as the Panthers desperately tried to get on top and they led just 19-18 at the half. Americus-Sumter brought it within 35-33 late in the final frame before Henry County sparked its massive 16-5 run. It was an landmark victory for the Warhawks’ program as they now play for their first state title since 1960. It was also an emotional win after an emotional week for head coach Greg Shook whose mother passed away earlier in the week.

“It’s always good to make it one more round, which means we’re playing in the last game you can play in for high school,” Shook explained to the Henry Herald following the game. “It’s important to us, important to our kids and important to our school. It’s a great thing and I’m glad that we’re here.”

For Henry County, Auburn signee Brooke Moore and Janiya Jones can offer an incredible one-two punch, but the scoring comes from up and down the talented roster. Moore led the Warhawks in the quarterfinals with her 22 points, and Jones’ netted a game-high 24 points in their 82-61 win over Upson-Lee in the second round. Amaiya Jackson was Henry County’s top scorer in the semifinals with 19 points and she also added 12 rebounds and four steals. Moore finished with 11 points, Jones finished with nine points and Janaya Wadsworth turned in nine points, five rebounds and three assists. Moore will attract a ton of defensive pressure from Spalding, as will Jones, but the more involvement from the role players, the more dangerous Henry County can be.

Spalding Jags (27-3) 

Spalding arrives at the finals in the midst of the most successful season in its program’s history. When head coach Tykira Gilbert arrived in 2016, she became the fourth different head coach to lead the Jags in a five-year span. After falling in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, Spalding reached the Elite 8 last year and have taken a stellar 27-3 record all the way to this year’s championship. The Jags’ have a healthy blend of experienced upperclassmen and rising stars and have a prolific scorer in the making with sophomore Corriana Evans. She opened the playoffs with a 22-point performance and then dropped 26 points in Spalding’s 63-56 win over Luella in the second round. Evans was limited to just 10 points in the quarterfinals, but senior Kiana Banks led the way with 24 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer that lifted Spalding past Madison County 55-53 and saved their season. Spalding took down the classification’s top team, Carver-Columbus last Friday in the semifinals 58-51. Evans was sidelined with foul trouble for much of the game, but scored six of her eight points in the final quarter to help clinch the victory. Aniaya Jester finished with 15 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks, while Banks added 13 points 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks. Jester’s quickness and crafty ball-handling skills overwhelmed Carver-Columbus and will be something for Henry County to watch for as Evans works the post down low and Banks finds her rhythm. Freshman Kierstyn Milner (10) and junior Kayla Milner (15) have also showed up this postseason, combining for 25 points in the first-round win over Shaw.