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Blue Devils face another top seed in quarterfinals

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Blue Devils face another top seed in quarterfinals

    The Statesboro Blue Devils hit the road for the first time this postseason as they travel to Macon for tonight’s Class AAAA Elite Eight matchup against Rutland.
    After knocking off Baldwin County and Jonesboro in the first two rounds of the state playoffs, the No. 1 seed Blue Devils (27-3) have the opportunity to reach their first Final Four since the 2002-03 season — a decade-long drought that Statesboro is eager to end.
    “It’s starting to hit everyone where we are right now,” SHS coach Lee Hill said during Tuesday’s practice. “These guys know how close we are, but they also know that there’s more tough games ahead if we want to keep going.”
    With wins over four different teams who have appeared in the Top-15 of Georgia’s Maxwell Ratings this season, the Devils have proven that they can stand up to the toughest competition. In order to survive and advance, Statesboro will have to chalk up another win over a highly rated team as the Hurricanes (22-5) also sit in the top-15 and — along with Statesboro — hold a No. 1 state seed.
    The Devils have been the more impressive of the two teams so far in the state playoffs. Rutland has won its first two games by a combined 13 points while the Devils notched a 12 point win over Baldwin and led Jonesboro by as many as 17 points in the fourth quarter before a late rally brought down the final margin.
    Statesboro also comes into tonight’s showdown riding a 15-game winning streak — good for second longest current streak in Class AAAA.
    The Devils seem poised and ready to stake their claim as a championship squad, but will have to win away from the cozy confines of the Devil’s Den throughout the rest of their run.
    In addition to hosting the first two games of the state tournament, Statesboro also hosted the Region 3-AAAA tournament. Tonight will be the first road contest for the Devils since a Feb. 1 win at Wayne County.
    “It’s a little bit of a concern,” Hill said. “We haven’t been on that bus in a while and it’s a long trip, but I think that we’re all really focused on the game and what we have to do to win.”
    The Devils will once again rely on the balance that has made them so difficult to defend thus far.
    Zaquavian Smith and Yakeem Coleman are both threats to shoot the lights out, but the progression of Jonathan Taylor and Alex Simmons in the paint gives Statesboro a much bigger and more physical force than in seasons past. Throw in point guard O’Aaron Ware and his smooth midrange jumpers and there aren’t too many ways to defend the Devils that don’t involve hoping for a bad shooting night.
    Statesboro is likely to put up its share of points, but the Hurricanes certainly have the talent to keep pace.
    Led by Jaylon Tyson’s 16.1 points per game, Rutland has four players averaging 10 or more points each night and — like the Devils — have multiple threats from behind the arc.
    With Rutland starting five guards, Statesboro will be the bigger team — a bit of a twist for the Devils who usually have to battle taller opponents. The Hurricanes like to press hard for four quarters, but Statesboro hopes that it has enough ball handlers to keep possession and beat the press for easy buckets.
    This will be the first meeting between the two squads, but there is some familiarity on the benches as Rutland coach Ron Christian spent his high school playing days starring for Hill and the Blue Devils from 1991-95.
    Christian was a part of one Statesboro squad that made it all the way to the state title game, but now stands directly in the way of another possible run.
    “This is the first time I’ve faced a former player in any type of playoff game,” Hill said. “Ron has done a great job and I’m proud of him, but I know that once the game starts, we’re both going to be trying our best to win.”
    Tonight’s winner will advance to Saturday’s Final Four matchup at Fort Valley State against either Columbia or Marist.

    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.

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