Round 1 preview: Tri-Cities boys build on legacy of toughness

March 10, 2022 Macon - Tri-Cities' head coach Omari Forts shouts instructions during the 2022 GHSA State Basketball Class AAAAA Boys Championship game at the Macon Centreplex in Macon on Thursday, March 10, 2022. (Hyosub Shin /



March 10, 2022 Macon - Tri-Cities' head coach Omari Forts shouts instructions during the 2022 GHSA State Basketball Class AAAAA Boys Championship game at the Macon Centreplex in Macon on Thursday, March 10, 2022. (Hyosub Shin /

The Tri-Cities boys are one of the teams that can typically be counted on to be among the contenders in Class 5A. This year is no exception. The Bulldogs are back in the hunt, fresh from winning the Region 5 championship, despite having to overcome some atypical obstacles.

This season Tri-Cities (19-8) has had to deal with the loss of its best player for much of the season, a two-week absence of coach Omari Forts because of a personal matter, and other non-basketball-related incidents at the school.

“This has been one of the most challenging years that I’ve had since I’ve been at Tri-Cities,” Forts said. “We’ve had to deal with a lot of different things at different times and had to get these guys to focus on the things it takes to win, despite things that are outside of your control.”

Forts has built one of the state’s premium programs at the East Point school. Over the last eight years the Bulldogs have averaged 21.9 points and won state championships in 2019 and 2022. They have earned a reputation as a hard-nosed, defensive-minded, well-coached teams – attributes that pay off in the postseason grind.

“I think in general kids rise to the expectations of the people around them,” Forts said. “We have some talented kids who come from families that want them to be successful. I think you win in life with good people who work hard. Within any organization, the organization itself is no better than the people who represent it.”

The team’s best senior, Malique Johnson, has been limited to 13 games. He averages 16.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists. The 6-foot point guard typifies the program’s toughness. He missed the first month-and-a-half of the season, returned to play a handful of games before suffering another injury that will require surgery after the season. He is limited to about 13 minutes per game but insisted on finishing his senior season.

“He’s shown a tremendous amount of toughness by coming back and leading us,” Forts said.

Want to know how tough? In last week’s Region 5 tournament, Johnson’s shoulder popped out the socket in the semifinal game against Mays. “He put it back in, got it wrapped and ran,” Forts said.

The best emerging player has been Tre Keith, a 6-2 guard who Forts called “the best freshman in the state of Georgia.” Keith averages 21.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.7 steals. He also has a 3.7 grade-point average.

“He does everything required to be successful,” Forts said. “He’s the best freshman I’ve ever coached.”

Other starters are senior Tramarius Jones (6.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists), 6-foot-7 sophomore Jayden London (9.2 points, 8.5 rebounds), and 6-4 junior Kamon Canty (7.6 points, 3.7 rebounds). Freshman Khalid Jones was outstanding when Johnson was injured and has been a substantial contributor.

Tri-Cities will open the tournament at home on Wednesday at 6 p.m. against Heritage.

Defending their titles: The Kell boys (23-2), who have been ranked No. 1 all year, had no problems in the Region 6 tournament and beat Chattahoochee 83-54 in the title game. Coach Jermaine Sellers’ team has won 23 straight and opens the tournament on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. against Dalton.

The Kell girls, the reigning state champions, fought through some tough graduation losses, but Kendra Bailey’s team improved consistently throughout the season and wound up as the runner-up in Region 6. The Longhorns will host Hiram in the first round on Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Regular-season champions hold serve in tournaments: Seven of the eight girls teams who won the regular-season championship also prevailed in their region tournament. The exception was in Region 1, where Ware County knocked off top-seeded Statesboro. But that wasn’t a huge surprise, since Ware, Statesboro and Bradwell Institute have taken turns beating each other all year.

The top seeds who took care of business were Union Grove (Region 2), Harris County (Region 3), Arabia Mountain (Region 4), Maynard Jackson (Region 5), Greater Atlanta Christian (Region 6), Dalton (Region 7) and Jefferson (Region 8).

The percentage of success swasn’t as high on the boys side, as only four doubled up to win the regular season and tournament. In Region 2, Eagle’s Landing beat rival Dutchtown in the title game, the second time it has done so in the last two weeks. In Region 4, second-seeded Decatur knocked off Tucker in the region final. In Region 7, third-seeded Cartersville emerged as the winner by beating Calhoun, which upset regular-season champion Hiram in the semifinals. In Region 8, Clarke Central rose up to beat top-seeded Winder-Barrow and return the trophy to Athens.

Regular-season champs who followed up with tournament victories were Statesboro (Region 1), McIntosh (Region 2), Tri-Cities (Region 5) and Kell (Region 6).

Best first-round girls game: Loganville was upset in the Region 8 semifinals and must go on the road to play No. 3 Midtown, the runner-up in Region 5.

Worst first-round draw for No. 1 girls seed: Harris County won the Region 3 championship and must now open the tournament against Warner Robins, ranked No. 5 in the penultimate regular-season poll and last year’s state runner-up.

Best first-round boys game: Chattahoochee (19-9) lost to Kell in the region final and gets to host Hiram (17-9). The Hornets were upset in the Region 7 semifinals after winning the regular-season title.

Worst first-round draw for No. 1 boys seed: The McIntosh boys (14-12) won the Region 3 championship and get to host Jones County, who is the No. 4 seed from Region 2. Jones County (18-9) was ranked in the top 10 for much of the season, but lost three times to No. 3 Dutchtown and twice to No. 2 Eagle’s Landing.

First-round schedule

Boys: Lithonia at Bradwell Institute, Northside-Columbus at Eagle’s Landing, Hiram at Chattahoochee, Heritage at Tri-Cities, Ware County at Tucker, Jones County at McIntosh, Greater Atlanta Christian at Calhoun, Maynard Jackson at Clarke Central, Mays at Winder-Barrow, North Springs at Cartersville, Warner Robins at Northgate, Greenbrier at Decatur, Eastside at Chapel Hill, Dalton at Kell, Harris County at Dutchtown, King at Statesboro.

Girls: Chamblee at Statesboro, Northgate at Union Grove, Hiram at Kell, Flowery Branch at Maynard Jackson, Decatur at Bradwell Institute, Warner Robins at Harris County, Cambridge at Cartersville, Tri-Cities at Jefferson, Creekside at Eastside, Northview at Dalton, Eagle’s Landing at Northside-Columbus, Jenkins at Arabia Mountain, Loganville at Midtown, Calhoun at Greater Atlanta Christian, McIntosh at Jones County, Lithonia at Ware County.