Langston Hughes’ boys basketball program had won only one state playoff game when Landers Nolley moved in from Chicago as a junior. Nolley helped bring two state titles to the south Fulton County school.
Winder-Barrow’s girls had not made the state playoffs since 1994 when Olivia Nelson-Ododa arrived as a freshman. The McDonald’s All-American took the Bulldoggs to a championship game as a sophomore and a No. 3 final ranking in her final season.
These senior game-changers are The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s all-classification players of the year.
Nolley, a Virginia Tech signee, averaged 31 points, eight rebounds and three assists for Hughes, which successfully defended its Class AAAAAA championship. The Panthers defeated Gainesville 85-78 in the final. Nolley scored 34 points and had 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals.
“I’ve been coaching for 24 years, and he’s the best I‘ve ever coached against,’’ Gainesville coach Benjie Wood said. “He’s 6-7 and can shoot the ball, but what gets overlooked is his basketball IQ. He’s so under control and intelligent. And the bigger the moment, the better he plays. He’s a pro.’’
Nolley made a similar impression in Hughes’ 68-62 first-round victory against Allatoona. Nolley scored 37 points, made seven 3-pointers and had six rebounds and six assists.
“I have seen almost all the top guys, and I honestly can’t think of any player better than him in the state,’’ Allatoona coach Markus Hood said. “He can do it all. If there was not the rule of preventing high school guys from being drafted, I think he would be drafted.’’
The state title was Nolley’s third. He won his first in 2016 as a sophomore at Curie High School in Chicago. The Georgia championship in Nolley’s junior season was Hughes’ first in any sport. This season, Hughes returned only one starter, but it was the right one.
“First and foremost, he is a winner, and that what the game is all about,’’ Hughes coach Rory Welsh said.
Winder-Barrow didn’t get a state title with Nelson-Ododa, but got closer than ever. The program had not been to the state playoffs since 1994 or won a playoff game since 1993 until Nelson-Ododa led the team to the championship game in 2016, her sophomore season. She had 13 points and 19 rebounds in the final, a game the Bulldoggs lost to Southwest DeKalb 49-48.
That was the first season in a three-year run in which the Bulldoggs reached at least the quarterfinals every year and compiled a record of 74-18.
“She’s one of the faces that’s changed the program as a whole,” Winder-Barrow coach Kimberly Garren said. “Winder had not been to state in 22 years when her class went to the finals her sophomore year. She had a few other great players with her, and without her and some others that 22-year drought would not have been broken. I’m from Winder, and these kids, with her being the leader, literally pulled the community together. The whole community seemed to come out for these kids’ games, followed them, and really brought back a sense of pride and school spirit.”
Perhaps the only thing that kept her from leading Winder-Barrow to its first state title was an unfortunate set of circumstances. The Bulldoggs lost the 2016 championship game at the Macon Coliseum by one point in a game in which the goals were not aligned correctly.
As a junior, Nelson-Ododa suffered knee injury late in the season that forced her to miss the team’s final seven games, but the Bulldoggs still managed to reach the quarterfinals. This year, Winder-Barrow, which was ranked No. 2 at the time, had to face top-ranked Lovejoy in the quarterfinals. The Bulldoggs lost 68-67 in overtime, and Lovejoy went on to win the title.
Nelson-Ododa averaged 19 points, 16 rebounds, six blocked shots, three assists and two steals this season for a team that went 24-5. She has signed with Connecticut.
“I think what makes her such a special player is, one, she’s so humble, her character,” Garren said. “And then as far as skill, she can play from rim to rim. Our point guards don’t have to wait for her to get down the court. She can pop a 3, and then she can go post up with the best of them. And defensively, she’s an awesome player to have inside to cut down on penetration. She’s truly an all-around great player.”