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Things heating up on the hardwood

With non-region games and holiday tournaments growing more distant in the rearview mirror, area basketball teams are ready to make a run down the stretch and hopefully continue into the postseason.
    Last season saw four area teams — the boys from Statesboro, Portal, and Jenkins County, as well as the Bulloch Academy girls — reach the Final Four of the state playoffs. This time around, there is no shortage of teams looking like they’re ready to hit their stride at the right time.

    Zaquavian Smith and O’Aaron Ware knew that they would have heavy expectations resting on their shoulders as returning starters from last season. Both have lived up to their hype as their ability to score from outside and cut through defenses makes the Blue Devil offense a versatile threat.
    Statesboro started the season hot, but hit a bump in the road with a loss to Liberty County in its first sub-region game. The Blue Devils (11-4) rebounded nicely with a road win at Wayne County last week and will have to keep up the good work to score a high seed in what figures to be a talent-packed Region 3-AAAA tournament.
    Statesboro’s girls missed out on the state playoffs with a one-point loss in the region tournament last season. That young squad returned four of its starters and the Lady Devils are a perfect 2-0 in sub-region competition so far. The girls will have to perform better in this season’s region tournament, but are setting themselves up for favorable matchups.

Southeast Bulloch
    The SEB boys were confident that they’d have a good season, but may be shocking some outside the program.
    The Yellow Jackets didn’t win a game two seasons ago before having a decent rebound season last year in their first season at the Class AAA level. This season, SEB has exceeded the expectations of everyone. The Jackets ran out to a 5-1 record in Region 1-AAA play and pulled a big upset over Beach last weekend. If SEB continues on its current course, the seniors who suffered through the doldrums of previous campaigns will have a state playoff berth to send them out of high school in style.
    On the girls’ side, things have picked up right where they left off.
    In his second year at the help, coach Johnnie Miller has the Lady Jackets looking more athletic and confident than they have in years. The SEB girls sit at 11-5 overall and 7-3 in region play, making a return trip to state a likely scenario.

    The area’s Final Four qualifiers claimed most of the headlines last season, but Claxton’s girls — who reached the Class A quarterfinals — are also deserving of a lot of credit.
    Jazmine Price and Devonna Brewton keyed last season’s playoff run and haven’t had any trouble replicating their success this season. Both Price and Brewton are threats to put up a double-double on any given night and the Lady Tigers (12-3, 3-1 Region 3-A) need to be considered strong contenders for a region tournament championship and a high state playoff seed when February rolls around.
    Claxton’s boys are going through some growing pains, but are still claiming their fair share of wins. The Tigers might not enter the region tournament with as many credentials as in previous seasons, but an athletic roster gaining experience by the day should still prove to be a tough out for anyone.

    The Panther boys returned three starters — including leading scorer Stacey Morgan — from last year’s squad and seem dead-set on another big season. Helping to make Portal even more imposing has been the addition of Metter transfers Trent Thomas and Harrison Sherrod to the roster, giving the Panthers added depth and some much-needed size in the frontcourt.
    Battling throughout January in the always-competitive Region 3-A, the Panthers dropped a game to fellow region power Calvary Day earlier this week. Portal might fall from its current slot at No. 2 in the latest Class A power poll, but could easily claw its way back and might have another crack at Calvary in the region championship game down the road.
    Portal’s girls made their first state playoff trip in over a decade last season and are trying to prove that it was no fluke.
    The Lady Panthers have shown flashes of being a region contender at times, but a young roster has also shown moments of looking… well… young.
    Breyonna Raymond has emerged as a star and will have to continue turning in big performances as her teammates gain experience and begin to make more contributions to the stat sheet.

Bulloch Academy
    Bulloch Academy’s boys never shy away from a challenge and often schedule tough non-region matchups. The Gators felt the aftermath of ambitious scheduling early on as they had to fight to keep their record near the .500 mark.
    The overall record might not be flashy, but the Gators’ region mark looks just fine after Tuesday’s win over rival Pinewood kicked off Bulloch’s region schedule. The Gators have had a knack for catching fire down the stretch in previous seasons and there’s no reason not to think that this year won’t provide more of the same.
    Perhaps saving the best for last, the Bulloch Academy girls have been just short of untouchable so far.
    A core group of upperclassmen headlined by Chelsea Oglesby, Pate Lomax, Ashley Burke and Paige Spence have been dispatching opponents with an easy that must be intimidating for those still left on the schedule.
    The Lady Gators share the same 1-0 region mark as their male counterparts and their 18-1 overall mark is quickly catching the attention of any Class AAA schools that might run up against them in the postseason.
    There’s still plenty of regular season left to play, but — as things currently look — the area could be in for another season full of thrilling postseason celebrations.

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