Though the GISA runs a week behind the GHSA when it comes to basketball, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get their shine as well when tournament time comes rolling.
Region tournaments kick off this week for Georgia’s independent high school association, and one of those tournaments will take place right here in Statesboro. Bulloch Academy will host the region 2-3A tournament starting this afternoon, with play-in games to kick things off.
The play-in games are significant because not only do they determine whether or not a team will move on to the next round of the region tournament, but they also serve as a do-or-die game for the playoffs.
Only four teams from region 2-3A in the GISA make it to the state playoffs, so the four-five playoff game serves as possibly the most important game in the entire tournament. That’s where Bulloch Academy’s girls sit — one game to decide whether or not they’ll be on the outside looking in.
“It’s not something we are very used to around here, but in this year I feel like it’s a good thing,” said head coach Paul Webb. “For a young team to experience this kind of pressure I think will help us in the long run.”
After winning two of the last three state titles, it’s an odd place to be sitting in to say the least. Or not considering who all BA lost last season when they went to the second round of the playoffs and lost on a halfcourt, buzzer-beating three.
Amber and Lacy Robins — both all region players — are now at Statesboro where they helped lead the Lady Blue Devils upset Ware County for the GHSA region 2-5A title. Sarah Evans — now at LaGrange College — was a two time state champion post player.
Those three were four of BA’s leading scorers from last season, which in hindsight was probably going to take a hit to BA’s offensive repertoire. However, it doesn’t mean BA can’t score when they need to.
“We’ve all improved this season, with the exception of three games we’ve been within single digits in all of our losses,” Webb said. “At inopportune times we’ve made mistakes, but I’ve been pleased with these kids so far.”
MiKay Sands is where BA’s ladies basketball team begins and ends. She leads the team in points, rebounds and minutes played, and has the highest usage rating of any other player of the team by a long shot.
Being six-foot-even and as nimble on her feet as she is makes Sands a problem for many other GISA schools in the post. Her drop-step, post hook move is as tough a shot to defend as well, which is why she averages well over 14 shots a game.
Behind her is freshman guard Abby Newton, who’s come into her own as the primary ball handler this season after being thrust into the role when Maddie Wynn Hendrix went down with a season ending ankle injury. Newton’s ability to spot-up three’s and get assists have been a good compliment to Sands’ game.
“Losing Maddie Wynn put down for a while, but Abby has been phenomenal all year being in a really tough spot,” Webb said. “she’s a vocal leader and a tough worker, every coach could use one of her.”
However, behind those two BA has had a hard time consistently finding a third scoring option. Regan Ellis, Maddie Cowart and Janna Beth Marsh have all tried filling in, but seeing as they’re all freshman —Newton included — it’s hard to see Webb relying on them too much in key playoff games.
Even one as big as this, where it’s do or die for BA’s playoff chances. The Lady Gators are potentially looking at missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006, when players like Newton, Ellis and Marsh were barely toddlers. They’ll have to do it against Edmund Burke, the No. four seed who’ve split with BA this season.
BA won their initial matchup 45-37 at home, then fell 31-28 on the road — giving the Gators a +9 point differential. The good news for BA here is Sands has averaged 20.5 points in those two games, and they’ll need every last cent she can give if they want to keep their playoff streak alive and improve their 13-13 season record.
“Our second game we played great defense but our offense just never caught up,” Webb said. “I like our chances against them, as tough as it’ll be, at home Tuesday.”
The game will go down in BA’s main gym at 5:30 p.m.
Boys take advantage of No. 1 seed
While the girls are staring down the barrel of a do-or-die situation, the boys are in a much more comfortable situation — which is a crazy thing to say considering how their seasons started.
While the girls cruised along at a slightly-above .500 in December, the boys were bogged down with a very tough schedule. Coming into January the Gators were 5-9, but it wasn’t anything head coach Chandler Dennard wasn’t expecting.
“There was one or two games I thought we should have won, but for the most part the early part of the season went the way I thought," said head coach Chandler Dennard. "We got better every week, and that's the way I've scheduled my whole career. I've coached state title teams who were 4-6 coming into January”
It wasn’t just that the boys were playing a tough schedule, but they also hadn’t picked up their best player yet. Dra Harrison — a Southeast Bulloch student before mid-December — transferred to BA to find more playing time as a Gator and wound up helping turn BA’s entire season around.
Harrison has logged 12 games as a Gator and has averaged a team high 16.6 points per game. Before Dra Harrison BA was 6-7, now they’re 15-10 and a squeaky clean 8-0 in region play. Harrison has given BA an offensive edge that can be a hazardous matchup for most GISA schools, and not Frederica, not Edmund Burke, nor Trinity Dublin or Pinewood has been able to stop the junior guard.
“Dra gave us a more balanced attack, he's opened things up for everyone else," Dennard said. "Don's picked up his scoring and that's opened up Chad Lanier from being double teamed,.”
However Harrison isn’t the only player BA has, despite what the narrative says. Fellow backcourt mates Don Aaron and Brett Thomas have been key on both ends of the floor for the boys, Aaron especially when Harrison has an off night. Aaron has a handful of 20-point games this season and can hit three’s as well as anyone on the roster.
Thomas has his moments on offense, but defense is where he earns his playing time according to Dennard.
“Everybody has a role, and Brett has really owned his role as a senior while swallowing his ego to be a defensive stopper first,” Dennard said.
As far as region play is concerned, no one was able to figure BA out. However that hasn’t absolved the Gators of playing in some very close contests. Frederica pushed BA to the brink a week ago in a 68-67 game, where Dennard’s team trailed by eight points at halftime.
Harrison would hit a free throw with eight seconds left to pull ahead and seal the win, but outside of that game only Pinewood has been able to to get within single digits of BA in region play. That doesn’t bode well for Trinity Dublin or Edmund Burke, who play in the four-five game tonight to see who gets another shot at the Gators on Thursday at 8:30.
BA blew Edmund Burke out by 25 plus points in both of their meetings, while the closest Trinity was able to get was 12. The winner of the Pinewood/Frederica game will be the true test for the Gators, but Dennard said it’s important his team doesn’t look ahead.
“Friday we learned a lesson, because we beat Frederica Tuesday to clinch the number one seed but went to Trinity Friday and we were down four at the end of the third quarter," Dennard said. "It served as a wake up call. They got after us and had that not happened to us, we could look by Thursday completely and not even play Friday.”
The full tournament schedule schedule — all to be held at Bulloch Academy this week — can be found in the graphic on the page.