Photo by Heather Middleton
By Derrick Mahone
Lovejoy has spent the majority of the season ranked in the coaches' poll. The Wildcats climbed as high as third at one point during the season.
By securing the top seed in next week's Region 4-AAAA tournament, Lovejoy is assured of its second straight state playoff berth.
It's probably a good insurance policy since the majority of the coaches, including Wildcats mentor Rick Francis, has termed this season's tournament wide open.
"You got to be ready to play when this tournament starts," North Clayton coach Martisse Troup said. "From top to bottom, if you are not ready, you will be sitting at home come state playoff time."
Heading into Friday's regular season finale at North Clayton, fifth-ranked Lovejoy has only one region loss. The Wildcats were upset 48-45 by Forest Park a week ago.
Because of region parity, Francis said securing a state playoff spot before the tournament begins was essential.
"Everybody is so fired up about this tournament," Francis said. "I'm glad that we are automatically in it (state tournament). There is no way we are going to relax now. We have to continue to work and maintain our focus. We want to be able to host at least a first round game at Lovejoy."
The top two seeds from the region tournament will get to host a first round game while the next two have to go on the road. Teams from Region 4-AAAA will be matched up against the teams that advance out of Region 2-AAAA in the first round of the playoffs, which begin on Feb. 26.
Jonesboro, which was upset in last season's tournament, will take a nine-game winning streak into its regular season finale tonight at Tri-Cities High in East Point. The Cardinals will be the No. 2 seed in the region tournament, and has to win only one game to secure a state playoff berth.
One of the sleeper teams for the tournament will be Forest Park, which has won three straight heading into tonight's contest against Mount Zion. The Panthers have won four of its last five games, and were the only region team so far to beat Lovejoy.
"We can't wait for the tournament," Panthers senior guard Malikki Priester said. "We want to prove a lot of people wrong. We want to be champions."
Forest Park coach Antonio Wade said his team has played well during the final stretch of the season. Prior to their recent success, the Panthers had lost five straight games.
"The team has started to buy into what I've been saying about defense," Wade said. "You have to come ready to play every night. We are going to play hard and let every thing fall its way."
Mundy's Mill, with sophomore Darrius Sizemore, could make a run in the tournament. The Tigers are coming off a double overtime win against Morrow, which also features one of the top sophomores in the region. Mustangs center Dante Ottley, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, is capable of averaging a double-double.
North Clayton will be relying on junior Marcus Hunt to help lead the Eagles, who at the beginning of the season were ranked, back to the state tournament. Hunt is averaging around 25 points per game with sophomore guard Stefan Bradley and seniors Michael Johnson and Lexus Hill also providing some scoring.
"We are still not playing at 100 percent," Troup said. "We are still looking to put a complete basketball game together. When we put four quarters together, we are tough to beat."
Region 4-AAAA Tournament At A Glance
Favorites: Lovejoy, Jonesboro, North Clayton - Although fifth-ranked Lovejoy has claimed the top seed in the region tournament, others can challenge for the tournament title. Jonesboro is led by Div. I signees Rasham Suarez (Georgia Southern) and James White (Arkansas-Little Rock). Region player of the year candidate Marcus Hunt makes North Clayton a threat.
Contenders: Morrow, Mundy's Mill - There is evidence that parity is in this 11-team region with several teams separated by only one game. Morrow has an outside scoring threat in Jordan Faciane and sophomore Dante Ottley is one of the top young players in the region. Mundy's Mill has a young star in Darrius Sizemore.
Sleepers: Forest Park - The Panthers might be the one team that no one wants to face in the region. They are starting to buy into coach Antonio Wade's defense-first approach. At times, Wade places four guards on the floor along with power forward Keshad Chinn.
Did you know?: Since Lovejoy is the top seed it will automatically be in one of the tournament's semifinals games, which gives them a berth into the state playoffs.