By Brian Paglia
Already it has gone down to the wire and into overtime of a holiday tournament championship game, and now the Eagle's Landing-Henry County boys basketball rivalry heads into historic territory.
When the Golden Eagles and Warhawks meet tonight for the third time this season, it will be the first time both programs are ranked in the top-10 at the same time -- Henry County (11-3, 6-1 Region 4-AAA) is ranked No. 7 in Class AAA in the PrepCountry.com/GACA boys' basketball poll; Eagle's Landing (11-2, 5-2) is ranked ninth -- adding one more ingredient to an already-compelling contest.
"It's probably one of the biggest games ... that we're going to play," Henry County coach Vincent Rosser said. "That's potentially a tiebreaker if we need it at the end if we happen to end up tied. We'd like to have two wins over them in region play to make it a lot easier for us."
"There's a lot on the line as far as our state positioning and being first in the region," Eagle's Landing coach Clay Crump said, "which is something everybody wants to do. There's all those things -- bragging rights, region position, momentum, all that stuff."
"Everybody wants to beat Henry County, but Eagle's Landing-Henry County is like the rivalry of the county," Golden Eagles sophomore center Desmond Ringer said. "It's like we have to beat them every game."
The teams split two previous meetings this season. Henry County benefited from 17 missed free throws by the Golden Eagles for a 65-58 win in a Dec. 4 region game. Eagle's Landing got revenge two weeks later, defeating the Warhawks, 76-75, in overtime of the Chuck Miller Classic championship.
Between the two meetings, each teams' defining characteristics have been exposed for the other to study. Eagle's Landing knows it must handle Henry County's pressure defense and be wary of guard Dontavious Bega and forward Larrentis Thomas. Henry County knows the Golden Eagles are far deeper and more athletic than given credit for.
"There aren't really any surprises left," Crump said.
Coming off last season's Class AA quarterfinals appearance, Bega and Thomas have picked up right where they left off. Bega averages 12 points, five assists and nearly four steals a game, while Thomas has continued his development as one of the top talents in the Southern Crescent, filling the stat sheet nightly with averages of 16 points and nine rebounds per game.
Together with junior guard Zavier Rosser (10 points, eight rebounds and six assists per game), the duo has helped the Warhawks ascend to the top of the Region 4-AAA standings with their familiar brand of up-tempo basketball.
"Our kids are really getting to learn about themselves," Rosser said. "For probably the first few games we were beating people on athleticism. ... We're not shooting the ball well, but our staple is our defense. We have been playing defense pretty decent."
But few teams in Region 4-AAA play defense as well as Eagle's Landing. The Golden Eagles give up just 53.5 points per game, second-best in the region.
Eagle's Landing is led by a talented core of sophomores and a savvy senior. Isaiah Dennis (13 points, three steals per game), Eric Wortham (nine points, eight rebounds per game) and Ringer (12 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks per game) give the Golden Eagles arguably the Southern Crescent's best group of young talent to go along with sharp-shooter Aaron Horton (11 points, five assists per game).
That group is 2-2 against Henry County in their time together, enough time to scrutinize their rivals and understand what it takes to beat them.
"(Henry County) always plays hard," Ringer said. "So what we have to do is we have to out-hustle them. That's what I've learned. ... They're a really good team. I think we can beat them if we just go the things we do."