“I think it’s good competition,” Cleveland said. “Especially with Ryan, because you can’t lay it up soft or he’ll send it to the bleachers. He forces us to make better moves, pump fakes and you have to get him into foul trouble. It’s a good test for driving to the basket and then kicking it back out.”
Said Mutombo, “I think anytime throughout the game, there’s almost always D-I-level guys on the floor who will have plenty of success at the next level. It’s always fun to play against Matthew and Maddison (Durr, a 3-star guard for the Knights with Division I offers) and Sharman, because they have a really good group.
“I’ve got to give credit to those guys for bringing their A-game every single time. It’s a good chance for us to improve, and I always take those games as a blessing because it’s not every day you play a team as talented as them.”
Although the rivalry doesn’t have the same feel this season with attendance limited — their first game had about 150 fans, according to Lovett coach Mike Harner — the on-court intensity hasn’t changed.
“If you watched the game, you saw two teams playing as hard as they could, whether the gym was packed with 2,000 people or parents only,” said Harner, in his third season coaching the Lions.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the semifinals of the state tournament won’t be held at neutral sites. That means a No. 1 seed potentially could play every game at home leading to the finals in Macon.
“Winning the region is always important, but it’s more important this year,” Cleveland said. “The stakes are higher with all games possibly being played at home in a gym we’re familiar with and with fans, hopefully, if they’re allowed.”
Mutombo believes winning the region title would benefit the Lions in more ways than one.
“Getting the No. 1 seed would be huge for us,” Mutombo said. “It would be the first time winning the region over them since I’ve been here, and I think having that confidence heading into state would do more for the team than having home-court advantage.”
The Knights and Lions play one last time Feb. 5 at Pace Academy before the region tournament, where they could play again for the 6-2A title. If that happens, the next game would be for a state championship. The Knights won the 3A title last season before they and the Lions reclassified to 2A.
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