Battle for Buckhead rivalry one of tops in Georgia

Class 2A's top-ranked Pace Academy features 5-star recruit Matthew Cleveland (35), who signed with Florida State, and their Region 6 rivals, the No. 3-ranked Lovett Lions, have Ryan Mutombo (left), who signed with Georgetown.
Class 2A's top-ranked Pace Academy features 5-star recruit Matthew Cleveland (35), who signed with Florida State, and their Region 6 rivals, the No. 3-ranked Lovett Lions, have Ryan Mutombo (left), who signed with Georgetown.

Credit: Courtesy of Pace Academy

Credit: Courtesy of Pace Academy

Both teams ranked inside top 3 in Class 2A and have Power 5 talent

The Pace Academy Knights and Lovett Lions are located three miles apart in Buckhead, so naturally the athletic rivalry between the two is intense. That is particularly true this year in boys basketball, where the Knights (14-1) are ranked No. 1 in Class 2A, and the Lions (9-4) are No. 3. Swainsboro, the defending 2A champions, is No. 2.

Knights third-year coach Sharman White got his first glimpse of the rivalry in 2017, when he attended a Lions-Knights game while recruiting Pace Academy star Isaiah Kelley. At the time, White was serving as an assistant on the Georgia State men’s basketball staff.

“I’d heard of the rivalry prior to me getting here because the schools are literally five minutes apart,” said White, who won seven state titles — six consecutively — at Miller Grove from 2005-16. “I’d not seen an atmosphere like that before. It was something great to watch, and to now be a part of that as a coach ... it’s great to be a part of that type of atmosphere.”

Both teams possess college-level talent at the top of their deep rosters. For the Knights, 5-star guard Matthew Cleveland, a Florida State signee, is ranked the No. 21 overall player in the country in the 247Sports Composite. The Lions’ Ryan Mutombo, who signed with Georgetown, is rated as the country’s No. 16 center.

When they met for the first time this season Jan. 8, the Knights won 64-60 at Lovett.

“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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