Heading into the season with a Top 10 ranking to their name, No. 7 Cherokee will no longer be sneaking up on anybody. After finishing 23-5 with their first-ever region title, the Warriors entered 2020-21 with a target on their back and something to prove, especially after failing to advance past the first round of the state tournament. Cherokee’s season debut went without a hitch as the Warriors outscored Alexander 65-30 over the final three quarters to race away with a highlight filled 83-47 victory.
Up against an inexperienced Alexander team, it was a back and forth first quarter as both squads traded punches. Senior guard Bennett Ulm set the tempo early for Cherokee. The unsung hero shined with his energy and defensive presence on the perimeter. He scored five of his 11 points in the first quarter and picked up steals and deflections along the way, but Alexander was game early on.
Junior Zion Fruster scored four points in the quarter including a smooth finish in transition to cut the Cherokee lead to 12-11 with just a tick under 3 minutes remaining.
Turnovers became an issue in the second quarter and for the rest of the game for the visiting Cougars. Cherokee got out in transition and were energized by Richmond Hill transfer Ethan Pickett and Xavier-signee Elijah Tucker. Pickett finished with 15 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals, relentlessly attacking the basket and finishing with thunder and finesse on the break.
Tucker, who started out slow with his outside shot, started to get more comfortable as he got closer and closer to the basket. The future Musketeer helped spark a 13-3 run that pushed Cherokee ahead for good, taking a 29-20 lead on a tip-in that showcased Tucker’s freakish length and athleticism.
Tucker scored 10 of his game-high 21 points in the stanza and finished with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals on the night.
At the half, Cherokee held a 44-33 lead with Alexander barely hanging on receiving solid first halves from Sean Ivory and Jah’Kim Payne, who both scored all 7 of their points in the first 16 minutes before going scoreless the rest of the way. The screeching halt of the offense led to a 24-6 third quarter in favor of the Warriors, a run that ballooned the Cherokee lead to 68-39 after three.
Tucker continued to be effective inside with his activity, while Cherokee’s 2-2-1 press led to multiple steals and a pair of Ulm layups to pushed the lead to 20.
Through their three games on Saturday, Alexander looked like a team ready to make a run in Class AAAAAA. If they are able to navigate Region 5, the Cougars could be in good shape to take a deep march in the state playoffs. Two key additions will make an immediate impact.
2019 6-3 SG Malik Battle was brilliant throughout the day. The transfer from Douglas County made it obvious why he was First Team All-Region and an All-State Honorable Mention selection last year. Battle was unstoppable at times, averaging 20.3 points over the three games while drilling eight threes. He is a silky-smooth shooter but is good at getting to the rim. Outside of his knack for scoring, it was his mean streak that stood out. Battle is talker on the floor and his mouth is what ignited the final match-up of the day with Southwest DeKalb into feeling like a state playoff game with the intensity and high level of play. Battle is a no-brainer No. 1 option for the Cougars and he played like a legitimate D-I prospect this weekend.
2019 6-5 SF CJ Hawkins will fit an important role with the Cougars this season. The transfer from Maryland provides a little bit of everything. His toughness on the glass will help out Brady Spence immensely. Hawkins was consistent on the day, averaging 8.3 points, 4 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.3 steals. Hawkins knocked down three three-pointers and provided energy. He had the highlight of the day when he went hard to the hoop and threw down a one-handed hammer dunk on two 6-foot-6 Southwest DeKalb defenders. Hawkins is a dangerous player that will do what he’s asked, but if needed, can be the second scoring option and give 10-12 points a night.
Alexander: 76-62 (L)
Only one starter from last season and five players suited up for Coach Michael Reddick, but that did not stop the proud program from competing. With no subs to turn to, the onus was on the five to make the most out of their opportunity.
2020 6-3 SG Ja’Quavian Florence will return with a good chunk of experience to a South Atlanta team that loses two of their winningest players in recent years, Dondre Barnes and Jalen Stegall. Florence looks ready to take over the mantle as being the next tough guard in the Hornet backcourt. Florence had a nice flow to his game. He not only dropped in 23 points, hitting three threes, but he led the short-handed Hornets with his overall floor game, collecting 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 1 block. Florence didn’t force the issue and played within himself even though the bulk of the offense had to run through him. Florence has a nice jump shot that works best when he plays off the ball. Having a large ball handling role in the offense on Saturday should help him down the stretch to round out his offensive game.
2021 5-11 SG David Hollis stepped up in a major way, banging home five three-pointers en route to a team-high 25 points. The lefty is a tough player. His three-point shot is his best weapon but he still found chances to attack the hole. If he is able to grow some more, he will be better suited for his 2-guard position. He’s not quite ready to run an offense at the point guard position. If he can’t squeeze out any more inches, working on his ball-handling and ability to finish in the lane would be to area to improve on. Defensively, he has the athletic and strong frame to be able to frustrate weaker guards. Overall, it was a big step forward for the D-Favors Celtic.
Alexander: 49-42 (W)
The starting five of Southwest DeKalb is intimidating walking off the bus, going 6-1, 6-4, 6-6, 6-7, 6-7. The Panthers will need to get production out of 6-foot-7’s 2021 Rion White and transfer from Florida 2019 Jalen Pittman. If the two bigs can control the paint and do the dirty work, Southwest DeKalb will be a scary proposition with the big three already in place.
2020 6-1 PG KD Johnson to no surprise, was the difference maker in a trash talk, highlight filled Saturday finale with Alexander. Johnson applies pressure on defenses from the second he steps foot on the court. He is in attack mode for the entire game and wears down his opponents. After scoring eight points in the first half, Johnson finished with a game-high 25 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 block. He buried three three-pointers and picked up 10 points from the foul line. Locked up with Jaylon Brown, a steady 2020 PG prospect in his own right, Johnson showed Brown what a D-I guard right now looks like. Defensively, Johnson rarely ever gives up on plays and notched one of his trademark chase-down blocks that stirred the crowd. His physicality can really bug guards that aren’t used to his in-your-face defending. His fire was lit after Malik Battle started jawing with him and the Southwest DeKalb bench. Bad idea. A player like Johnson doesn’t need any extra motivation, especially in a summer league game.
2019 6-6 PF James Glisson III can sometimes get lost in the shuffle with the high-flying escapades of KD Johnson and the sharpshooting of 2020 6-4 SG Eugene Brown III, but Glisson is uber-important to the success of the Panthers. A big body, Glisson still has the skills to play minutes on the wing, even though I feel he is at his best with his back to the basket. Glisson had 9 points (1 three), 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal. He will have games this year where he will carry the Panthers with his offensive rebounding and inside scoring. I view Glisson as one of the top 2019 power forwards in the state.
Perfection was on the line as No. 1 South Paulding (24-1, 16-0) traveled to No. 9 Alexander (17-7, 11-5) with a chance at polishing off a perfect record in Region 5-AAAAAA. It would not come easy as a sea of black packed Alexander’s gym, ready to see their Cougars attempt to avenge a 52-50 road loss just six days earlier.
The players and fans were more than familiar with each other but also were the coaches. South Paulding head coach Gil Davis and Alexander head coach Jason Slate both come from the Tim Criswell coaching tree at Carrollton and Davis became an understudy for Slate while the two were at Lithia Springs.
South Paulding opened up taking some uncharacteristically bad shots that the Cougars capitalized on. Howell gobbled up rebounds and established himself early around the basket with six of his eight points in the game in the first six minutes.
After Davis’ timeout, the Spartans began to settle in and phase out the loud home crowd while pulling from their own rambunctious student section which lit up half court as they whited-out the section. Georgia State-signee Kane Williams got his first bucket of the game with just over two minutes left in the first quarter.
South Paulding captured its first lead of the game at the 5:53 mark on a Williams three. But a monster dunk from Howell and foul trouble for Ja’Cori Wilson saw the Cougars regain a 27-23 edge at the 2:18 mark with Wilson heading to the bench with his third foul.
DJ Jackson came away with a steal and was fouled hard going to the hoop with 3 seconds left on the clock and split a pair of free throws to send the game into the half with South Paulding trailing 29-27.
South Paulding slowly started to impose its will but the Cougars wouldn’t fade. Sophomore Cameron Armstrong flew in for a tip-in to cut the lead to 36-33, but on the other end Williams bullied his way to the basket for his seventh point of the quarter and completed the And-1. Drew Shepherd proceeded to drain a three with under a minute left and the score stayed 42-35 at the end of three, South Paulding’s largest lead of the game.
At the 6:03 mark with the Spartans continuing to pull away, Chris Lunsford found Armstrong for a three to keep it a two possession game at 45-39. The Cougars added a free throw to make it 45-40, but that would be as close as they would get. Over the final 4:40, the Spartans put the game away with a 13-6 run.
Williams slid his way for another And-1 to go ahead 50-40.
Hands down it was the best atmosphere I have been in all season long and as far as both student sections bringing it, probably the best fan participation in my two years covering the GHSA. Alexander rode the home crowd early and South Paulding came out firing some quick and bad shots as the Cougars’ press sped them up. I would have loved to see Damion Howell get more post touches. The inside-outside game of him and Grant Howard worked perfectly in the first half but after Howell’s powerful slam in the second quarter, he never scored again and didn’t get many opportunities to. Howard came out of the gates hot with seven first quarter points and 10 points in the first half, but he managed just four points in the second half as the Spartans clamped down. Cameron Armstrong stepped up in the absence of third leading scorer Rod Rapley (11.9 ppg). The sophomore hit two rainbow threes. Rapley’s athleticism and scoring was missed down the stretch when the Cougars started to run out of gas. Zeek Copeland was quiet with three points but Chris Lunsford added some energy with seven points off the bench.
It’s never going to be overly pretty, but South Paulding is the No. 1 ranked team in the state for a reason. They play with a chip on their shoulder, Drew Shepherd their emotional leader. He and DJ Jackson both pitched in eight points apiece which is all you need when Kane Williams and Ja’Cori Wilson are rolling. After a 2-point first quarter, Williams turned it on, attacking the basket. He had 14 of his game-high 21 points in the second half. Wilson was hampered with foul trouble but when he was in the game he produced. He scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds in front of Longwood. The first quarter MVP for South Paulding was hands down Chandler Travis. With Tank Withers and Parker Berry unavailable in the backcourt along with Jordan Burge in the low post, Travis stepped in and breathed life into the Spartans when they were struggling in the first quarter. He finished with six points, all in the opening period.
South Paulding Kane Williams – 21 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, 1 block
Ja’Cori Wilson – 15 points, 9 rebounds, 1 steal
DJ Jackson – 8 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal
Drew Shepherd – 8 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals
Chandler Travis – 6 points, 2 rebounds
Alexander Grant Howard – 14 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals
Damion Howell – 8 points, 12 rebounds
Cameron Armstrong – 8 points, 2 rebounds
Chris Lunsford – 7 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal
Without Jules Erving (HIES) and Jack Lapenta (Parkview) in attendance, two of the league’s undefeated teams set the stage for an evenly matched battle. Parkview boasted youth while Holy Innocents’ leaned on its veteran core. In the end, it was Parkview who scored an impressive win.
Holy Innocents’ held an early 11-4 advantage in the first quarter thanks to a hot start out of senior guard Cole Smith, but Parkview closed with an 8-0 run to take a 12-11 lead after one, the Panthers guards aggressively defending right at half court, taking the Golden Bears out of their early rhythm. Young gems Toneari Lane and Ahmir Langlais paced Parkview to start, both dropping in four points apiece.
In the second quarter Holy Innocents’ gained control with an 11-0 run to take a 22-14 lead. The Bears received major contributions from role players Robert McGovern and Todd Ennis. McGovern, a senior guard, finished the day with a game-high 14 points and chipped in five rebounds while Ennis, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, added eight points and six rebounds, both players knocking in a pair of threes.
It looked like the Bears were going to enter the second half with a comfortable lead, but Parkview’s Cam Chavers got hot from deep. The 5-foot-11 guard drained two late threes and helped draw the Panthers to within 27-24 at the half.
At the end of three, Holy Innocents’ maintained a slim 33-29 advantage.
In the fourth quarter Truitt Spencer gave the Panthers a spark, scoring his only two buckets of the game. Richard Surdykowski fouled out for the Golden Bears at the 5:07 mark with the game tied at 38, which hurt Holy Innocents’ interior defense down the stretch. With 55 seconds remaining, Smith hit a pull up jumper from the right elbow to edge Holy Innocents’ ahead 42-40. The ensuing possession, Justin Spencer attacked the rim and earned a one-for-two free throw attempt which he sank to knot the game up at 42 with 24.7 seconds left.
Holy Innocents’ attempted to hold for one shot, but pressure caused Smith to turn the ball over with 5.8 seconds left.
In overtime Chavers knocked down his third three of the game and Jamiel Wright added a bucket to take a quick 47-44 lead. Chavers finished with 11 points while Wright, a crafty sophomore, totaled nine points and a game-high four assists. Lane put the finishing touches on the win with two hoops inside as the Panthers earned a hard fought 53-47 decision.
Toneari Lane and Ahmir Langlais caused problems for Holy Innocents’, the freshman and just recently turned 15-year-old sophomore proving why colleges are already starting to offer. Lane, a 6-foot-5 lefty, scored a team-high 12 points and collected four rebounds, two assists, one steal and two blocks. Lane doesn’t play like a freshman and fits in with the Panthers nicely, his versatile skill set allowing him to play all over the floor.
Langlais, fresh off offers from Middle Tennessee State and North Florida, added nine points, six rebounds, one assist, two steals and four blocks. The lean 6-foot-7 post had a nice battle inside with veteran 6-foot-7 center Richard Surdykowski. Langlais showed polish with ball fakes around the rim and got a hand on loose balls coming off the glass thanks to his length.
Langlais just recently celebrated his 15th birthday and should be a freshman instead of a sophomore, which means there is even more to like about his development. Surdykowski and others at times frustrated Langlais with physical play, but Ahmir was effective nonetheless. Once he starts to grow into his body and add weight, there is a ton of potential. Next week Langlais tussles with the strongest big man in the league, 6-foot-8 senior Mohammed Abubukar, which will be a great test.
Aside from Parkview’s two young standouts, Jamiel Wright and Cam Chavers also looked good. Chavers hit timely shots while Wright was a pest defensively and got people involved on offense while choosing his spots to attack the basket. Brandon Harvey, Truitt Spencer and Justin Spencer all provided active hands and feet on defense and slowed down Holy Innocents’ on the perimeter.
6-foot-2 senior guard Cole Smith finished with nine points, six rebounds, three assists and one steal for Holy Innocents’. Parkview did a nice job of not letting the lethal three-point shooter get any looks, but Smith still was able to affect the game with his passing and ability to make the right decision when faced with pressure.
I was most impressed with Holy Innocents’ role players who stepped up in the absence of Jules Erving. Junior guard Matt Meadows, Todd Ennis and Robert McGovern all played within themselves. Meadows finished with six points, two rebounds and two assists. Meadows looked steady at point guard as Ibrahim Shabazz, the Bears’ usual starter, was also out.
Eagle’s Landing 43, Alexander 38
Alexander jumped out to an 11-9 lead at the end of the first quarter paced by three three-pointers, two from 6-foot-3 junior Grant Howard. Newly offered by Kennesaw State guard Brandon Thomas carried the Eagles early with five of his seven points in the first quarter.
After a scoreless first quarter, 6-foot-8 senior Mohammed Abubukar began to wear down the Cougars. The big man sank a corner three to give the Eagles a seven point lead, but Alexander would close the gap with another Howard three and enter halftime trailing Eagle’s Landing 18-16 in a low scoring game.
In the second half, Abubukar continued to do damage. He helped the Eagles to a 31-24 lead after three but as he pounded away inside, 6-foot-7 senior Damion Howell did the same for the Cougars. Howell scored all eight of his points in the second half. Methodical in the way he gathers himself, Howell likes to face the basket with his drop step, create contact in the defender’s chest with the ball and then either draw the foul or finish atop him. He can be a load to handle, but dig downs from guards can bother him.
In the fourth quarter, Abubukar, who listed North Carolina A&T, Elon and South Carolina State as colleges showing the most interest in him, earned back-to-back And-1’s in the paint to make it 37-28. He finished with a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Alexander rebounded from Abubukar however and used their quickness to clamp down on defense and create scoring opportunities. Senior guard Ron Gibson scored his lone two hoops in the fourth quarter during the Cougars’ 10-2 run to draw within 39-38 with 1:21 left to play on Rod Rapley’s lay-in, the senior scoring seven points and grabbing four rebounds on the day.
Rapley’s hoop would be the last Alexander bucket of the game however as sophomore point guard Rashad Elloie would pick up four points from the line to close out the game 43-38, Elloie finishing with eight points and four rebounds.
Eagle’s Landing hurt Alexander on the glass outrebounding them 34-18. The Eagles were in control for most of the game before Alexander’s pressure defense tightened the screws in the fourth quarter. Grant Howard hit three threes for the Cougars, but was held scoreless in the fourth quarter finishing with nine points and three assists. Sophomore big man Brady Spence, all 6-foot-7 arms and legs of him, gave the Cougs a nice spark in the fourth quarter during their run, scoring inside off some nice footwork and then blocking a shot.
Rashad Elloie’s cool free throw shooting and Mohammed Abubukar were too much down the stretch. Abubukar doesn’t wow you with high flying athleticism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he plays below the rim. His footwork on the low block and his strength are what butter his bread. He even showed off a three-point touch and once again showed confidence in his ability to catch at the elbow, turn and face and attack the basket successfully. This Under the Radar Senior will make a nice addition to a college frontline.
St. Francis 59, Marist 46
Senior point guard Wallace Tucker poured in 16 points while 6-foot-3 freshman Chase Ellis dropped 18 to lead St. Francis over Marist. The War Eagles were led by senior Whid Childs who hit four threes for 12 points and 6-foot-5 junior Jake Mauldin who added 12 points and drained two deep balls.
Up until the regular season starts, Suwanee Sports Academy is home of the High School Fall League spanning from Week 1 (Aug. 20) to Week 8 (Oct. 15). 16 varsity teams take to the court along with two AAU programs, creating a competitive atmosphere. A handful of teams are in early contention to crack the Top 10 in their respective classifications for the 2016-17 season, making the SSA Fall League an intriguing stop during the dog days of summer.
Parkview 59, Alexander 49
Two teams with high expectations that could really sneak up on the state met in Week 2. The Panthers were without 6-foot-7 sophomore Ahmir Langlais and 6-foot-5 freshman Toneari Lane who were both at North Florida Elite Camp where they picked up scholarship offers. Even without two of their brightest young talents, the Panthers still managed to lead coast-to-coast and knock off the Cougars.
Parkview entered the fourth quarter up 11 before Alexander’s Damion Howell began to hurt Parkview’s smaller interior, the beefy 6-foot-7 big man collecting six of his eight points in the quarter. The Cougars clawed to within four before Parkview leaned on last year’s leading scorer, junior Cam Chavers to carry them to the finish line. Chavers netted six of his team-high 14 points in the final frame. The Panthers’ backcourt harassed the Cougars into turnovers which led to easy hoops. (Jr.) Justin Spencer scored 13 points followed by (Jr.) Myles Joseph and (So.) Jamiel Wright scoring 11 apiece. As a team, Parkview knocked down nine threes, which should stretch defenses out to allow Langlais space to maneuver inside this upcoming season.
Alexander showed flashes of being a dangerous team in Class AAAAAA with their lineup of (Jr.) Grant Howard, (Sr.) Rod Rapley, (Sr.) Zeek Copeland and sophomore Cameron Armstrong surrounding senior Damion Howell inside. Howard provided the most consistent outside shooting, able to pull up off the dribble and drain from deep. He hit four three-pointers en route to a game-high 16 points. Rapley added nine points and Howell, eight. The Cougars’ aggressive guard play will be at its best when configured into Coach Jason Slate’s system.
St. Francis 49, Grayson 45
Junior Travis Anderson caught fire in the fourth quarter, scoring eight points and rallying the Rams to a 40-39 lead after trailing 39-32 to enter the final period. The game was tied at 45 with 1:59 left, both teams matching baskets. A silly late foul with 14 seconds remaining put St. Francis senior guard Wallace Tucker at the line. Tucker, who scored a game-high 18 points, sank the two-for-one free throw to give the Knights a two point lead. Anderson had one last chance to either tie or win the game, but the ball slipped out of his hands and a thunderous dunk by Dwon Odom sealed the deal.
Plenty of new faces will be front and center for St. Francis this year. None will be more heavily tracked than freshman guard Dwon Odom. The 6-foot-2 mega-athlete made his presence felt during the travel circuit and enters high school ball as a ballyhooed prospect. Odom stuffed the stat sheet with 10 points, six rebounds, one assist, five steals and three blocks. As elite an athlete as the youngster is, he must craft his shot over the next four years. All 10 of his points came on fast breaks; three of them dunks. Once he gains more confidence in his jumper Odom has a chance to be a very special player.
Now asked to be the leader, veteran Wallace Tucker played the best game I’ve seen him put forth. He did a number on the physically smaller Grayson guards and cleaned up when sent to the foul line, scoring eight points via the charity stripe.
For Grayson, Anderson really turned it on when the game got competitive in the fourth quarter. Incoming freshman Deivon Smith didn’t play a whole lot. The little guard is crafty and has a nice future ahead of him. He hit a game-winner at the buzzer to beat Odom’s Atlanta Celtics earlier in the offseason, giving the two guards a little history. It was a downer not being able to see each other matchup more.
Outside of Anderson, 6-foot-4 senior post Kyle Butts impressed. He is a strong rebounder that gives Coach Geoffrey Pierce a lot of effort inside. He finished with six points and 10 rebounds. Another senior, Aaron Rowe, brings some depth to the wing after moving in from Parkview. He had five points and five rebounds. Terrell Greene scored six points from the perimeter to go with his two steals. The Rams were missing starting center, 6-foot-6 Kenyon Jackson inside who is currently in football season.
Eagle’s Landing 56, Georgia Elite Ballers 53
A pair of transfers helped the Eagles over a talented AAU team. 6-foot-8 senior Mohammed Abubakar led the way with 13 points. The big man from Hamilton Heights, TN was aggressive, getting the ball and attacking the rim from the high post. He even knocked down a three. Junior sweet shooter Brandon Thomas moved in from Locust Grove to hit three threes for nine points. Lengthy sophomore CJ Hood pitched in 12 points and was active on defense and the glass rebounding the ball.
Holy Innocents’ 66, Marist 54
The big three of seniors Jules Erving, Cole Smith and Richard Surdykowski overwhelmed Marist. Erving poured in 22 points followed by Smith’s 14 and Surdykowski’s seven points. Marist received 17 points from senior David Sever.
East Jackson 51, Prince Avenue Christian 42
Junior guard Kobe Haley powered East Jackson with 21 points. Prince Avenue was led by senior guard Sam Todd’s 11 points and junior forward Dalton Meeler’s 10 points.
Behind guards Justin Quick and John Mills, the Falcons pushed the Cougars to the brink. Quick, a junior, led all scorers with 16 points. Senior Dalton Gerdts buried three threes and finished with 11 points but missed on a game-tying three at the buzzer. Mills, a senior, added 12 points while fellow starting senior guard Brannon Clark was not in attendance. Once again, Grant Howard supplied the offense for Alexander with 11 points. Zeek Copeland and Rod Rapley both went for seven points.
Johnson-Gainesville 55, Forsyth Central 49 OT
The Knights rallied from down double digits to force overtime where they surged past the Bulldogs. Senior forward Dwayne Wilson posted a double-double with 25 points and 10 rebounds.