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Area hoops action heats up as region schedules get underway
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    This weekend marks the beginning of the heart of high school basketball’s region  schedule. While many teams have played a few scattered region contests, the schedule from here on out will be predominantly region contests. With a slew of games scheduled for tonight and tomorrow, here’s a breakdown of how each team feels headed into the region season.

    Statesboro’s boys team (7-6) has gotten off to a rough start by the program’s high standards, but coach Lee Hill isn’t too worried.
    Hill knew before the season began that a tough non-conference slate featuring schools such as Beach, Johnson and Jenkins, not to mention Griffin and East Laurens, would test his inexperienced team.
    In addition, an early-season flu hit SHS and sidelined several Blue Devils, including go-to big man Justin Houston.
    With the team returning to full strength, Statesboro has enjoyed two of its better performances in the last two games. Houston is back and on the way to “basketball shape” for the first time all year, while 6-foot-4 shooting guard Eric Ferguson has begun to assert himself on the court. He’s scored 33 points over the last two games, using a nice combination of perimeter shots and slashing layups.
    Tonight will be the first region game for both SHS teams.
    The Blue Devils need to keep up the good play, however, as Greenbrier and Beach come to town tonight and Saturday, respectively. Both teams are considered favorites to make postseason runs.
    Though the Christmas break wasn’t very kind to the Lady Devils, they can certainly say they’re battle tested.
    SHS played five games over the break, three of which came against undefeated teams. Though Statesboro lost all three of those games, they did down Jenkins to take third in Screven’s holiday tournament. They also beat an 8-2 Orange Park, Fla., team that plays in the Sunshine State’s largest classification.
    The Lady Devils love to press and push the tempo, and Monnette Bennett is perhaps the area’s best all-around player. SHS will need a full-team effort tonight, however, as they begin region play by hosting Greenbrier. The Wolfpack have been to the final four two straight years and return four starters.
    The Portal boys are off to a 10-2 start this year, but one of their goals at the outset of this season was to win the region 3-A championship. The Panthers are 1-1 in region play thus far with a loss to Calvary Day. Tonight’s rivalry game with Jenkins County begins Portal’s pursuit of a region crown.
    “It’s a big weekend for us,” said PHS head coach Jeff Brannen. “I thought we ended the ECI Tournament pretty good and began to play better as a team as the tournament went on. (Tonight) Jenkins County is always a rivalry and we’re going to come out ready to play. We do still have some things to work on and I don’t think we’ve peaked quite yet.”
    The Lady Panthers of Portal have started just 2-10, but the majority of losses have come at the hands of schools in higher classifications. The toughest loss for PHS was a 70-34 defeat on Day 2 of the Emanuel County Institute Christmas Tournament, a loss in which head coach Earl Donaldson was adamantly upset with his team’s play. But the Lady Panther’s ended the three-day tourney with a win, giving them some momentum for tonight’s match-up.
    “The tournament games really helped us,” said Donaldson. “A lot of girls really stepped up and got a chance to play. I think that should give us some momentum.”

Southeast Bulloch
    The Yellow Jackets got off to a rough start this season, but have managed to make strides of improvement over the last few games. Head coach John Page was especially pleased with the improvement he saw in a holiday tournament on the campus of Brewton-Parker College.
    “We’ve still got a ways to go,” said Page. “But I tell you what, we probably played as well as we could the last couple of games. We have one or two kids that have taken some steps backward, but the rest of them are looking forward to this half of the year and trying to get better.”
    Coach Milton Williams and the Lady Jackets just can’t seem to catch a break. Just as guard Laura Akins returned to the court from a broken finger, SEB  lost Kacey Jones with a broken ankle.
    “I was real pleased with the work we got done over Christmas,” said Williams. “We had been playing pretty well, with getting the whole team back... then Tuesday night, Kacey goes down with a broken ankle. But I really like our chances in the region. I know it’s going to be hard for us to compete with the top teams in the region, but we feel by playing hard and getting the right breaks that we should be able to be in the middle of the pack.”

Screven County
    The Lady Gamecocks got off to a 10-1 start before losing to Southwest-Macon in the championship game of the Gamecock Holiday Invitational Classic. That loss, according to head coach Jennifer Acree, may have been a blessing in disguise.
    “I think (the team is) still a little mad over the Southwest loss,” said Acree. “The thing about it is, we needed that. Hopefully, that loss can do the same thing it did for us last year (losing to Effingham County).
    Coach Arthur Davis has his boys improving as the season progressed and says he feels good about going into region play.
    “We’re working hard and going to take these games one at  a time,” Davis added.
    Head coach Brian Hall has the Tigers coming into the weekend at 4-6. While he said the record isn’t the greatest, he has been pleased with how hard his team has played in almost every ball game. He’ll need that same effort night-in and night-out in a tough region 3-AA.
    “Our region is very, very good,” said Hall. “Realistically we’re not going to be favored very much. We’re going to have to dictate the style of play and upset some people. Our guys haven’t played those Augusta schools, and they haven’t played Jefferson County, so they’re not real sure what to expect. They do know they’re going to see some good basketball.”
    The Lady Tigers and coach Duane Davis know they have their work cut out for them against some of the state’s top teams.
    “It’s going to be tough,” said Davis. “Our girls have had a problem with confidence so far. We’ll start out well and then we’ll hit a mental lapse and it’s real hard for us to get back going again. That’s one of the things the staff and I are trying to work on, staying positive throughout the course of the game.”

    It’s been awhile since the Lady Tigers of Claxton have seen the court, and that’s just one facet of this weekend’s play that has head coach Laura Aziz concerned.
    “Normally we have played a couple of games (over the holiday’s),” said Aziz. “But we didn’t play this year so I’m a little worried about that. You can practice all you want but it’s hard to get back at game speed. We can’t make any excuses, we have to be ready to go.”
    Claxton will face ECI tonight, a team Aziz grouped with Portal, Savannah Country Day, Calvary Day and Jenkins County as the region’s toughest.
    “It’ll be tough, there won’t be an easy night,” she added.
    Coach Eric Bluestein was dealt a blow over the holiday break when the Tigers lost a pivotal post player. But Bluestein said the change in line-up will  make his Tigers have to focus more on their guard play in a region he termed “loaded.”
    “It’s going to be tough for us, it’s going to be a battle whoever we play,” said Bluestein. “But we play hard, the kids do play hard and there’s only been a couple that I felt we haven’t been in.”
    Statesboro Herald Sports Editor Johnny Buck contributed to this story.