Semifinals primer: 12 teams make first final-four appearances

ajc.com

Six No. 1-ranked teams are gone, and 11 unranked teams are still playing in what’s been a volatile Georgia high school basketball tournament, which will conduct its semifinals Friday and Saturday at five neutral sites.

Twelve teams are the first from their schools to reach a final four. The proudest probably is Social Circle’s boys, whose first state-tournament appearance was 1937. The Redskins are 30-0 heading into Saturday’s game in Valdosta against No. 1-ranked Drew Charter, which is making its first semifinal appearance, as well.

“I can’t go 24 hours without someone coming by or texting me to tell our team how proud they are,’' Social Circle coach Taylor Jackson said. “This town was built to have a good basketball team, and they’ve been rewarded for their patience with a great one.”

Several other teams are breaking long droughts. Elbert County’s girls, coached by alumnus Josh Jones, are making their first semifinals appearance since 1960. Elbert County plays Josey in a Class 2A game Friday at Georgia College.

“It’s been pretty crazy the last couple of days, and excitement is at an all-time high,” Jones said. “But we still have work to do. We’ve done something that hasn’t been done since the ‘60s, and now we want to do something that’s never been done, and that’s win it all.”

The semifinals will be played at the Buford City Arena (classes 7A and A Private), West Georgia (6A), Fort Valley State (5A, 4A), Georgia College (3A and 2A) and Valdosta State (A Public).

Here’s a primer for what’s in store:

Favorites: Five No. 1-ranked teams remain on both the boys’ and girls’ brackets. The top boys teams are Pebblebrook (7A), Eagle’s Landing (5A), McDonough (4A), Greenforest Christian (A Private) and Drew Charter (A Public). The No. 1 girls teams are Woodward Academy (5A), Luella (4A), Lumpkin County (3A), Holy Innocents’ (A Private) and Lake Oconee Academy (A Public). No. 1 teams ousted in the quarterfinals this week were Wheeler’s defending champion boys (6A), Brookwood’s girls (7A), River Ridge’s girls (6A) and Fannin County’s girls (2A).

Best girls game: Holy Innocents’ meets No. 2 Mount Paran Christian on Friday in Buford. The two teams have won their six playoff games by an average of 39.2 points, none closer than 27. Led by Region 5 Player of the Year Olivia Hutcherson, Holy Innocents’ (27-2) has won three state titles (2016, 2019, 2020) and made the finals seven of the past eight seasons. Led by Georgia Tech signee Kara Dunn, Mount Paran Christian (23-4) is in the semifinals for the first time.

Best boys game: Pebblebrook plays No. 2 Berkmar on Friday night in Buford. Pebblebrook, led by Region 2 Player of the Year Kami Young, a Rider signee, has made the semifinals or better five of the past nine seasons but never won a state title. Berkmar, led by Region 7 Player of the Year Malique Ewin, an Ole Miss signee, was the 2021 runner-up and last won in 2001.

Unranked, undeterred: Eleven teams are unranked. The boys teams are Langston Hughes (6A), Calhoun (5A), Beach (3A), Woodville-Tompkins (2A), Heritage-Newnan (A Private). The girls teams are Campbell (7A), Rockdale County (6A), New Manchester (5A), Westminster (3A), Commerce (A Public) and Hancock Central (A Public). Commerce’s girls entered the tournament 11-14.

Newcomers: In addition to Social Circle, the boys teams in the semifinals for the first time are Sequoyah, Grovetown, Woodville-Tompkins, Heritage-Newnan, King’s Ridge Christian, First Presbyterian and Drew Charter. Girls teams in their first semifinals are New Manchester, Pierce County, Mount Paran Christian and Lake Oconee Academy.

Drought-breakers: Joining Elbert County’s girls as teams in their first semifinals this century are Warren County’s boys (last appearance 1969), Northeast-Macon’s boys (1987), Thomson’s boys (1992), Westside-Augusta’s boys (1996), Warner Robins’ girls (1996) and Hancock Central’s girls (1997).

Twice the fun: Norcross (7A), Sequoyah (6A), Marist (4A) and Northeast-Macon (2A) have their boys and girls teams in the semifinals.

Road warriors: Galloway’s girls, Hughes’ boys and the Beach boys are the only teams to win three road games to reach the semifinals.

Swan songs: Two Class A Private boys semifinalists are playing in the GHSA for the last time. Heritage-Newnan and First Presbyterian are leaving for the Georgia Independent School Association next season.

Next: The finals are March 9-12 in the Macon Coliseum.