Three area teams are vying for a berth in the semifinals of the Class 1A state boys basketball tournament on Saturday.
Only two can make it. One assuredly will.
Malone (25-3) is traveling to Bonifay to take on Chris Walker and Holmes County in a regional final at 7 p.m. Cottondale (14-14) is on the road in Greensboro to play West Gadsden at 6 p.m. CST.
Walker, the Florida Gator recruit who has garnered widespread recognition as a Top-10 prospect nationally, will be the center of attention when the Blue Devils try to earn some level of revenge. Malone ousted Holmes County from last year’s regional tournament.
As prolific as he is as a 6-foot-9 senior, Walker will need help if the Blue Devils want to book their trip to Lakeland next week.
“Chris Walker is one guy,” Holmes County coach Po White said. “You’ve got to put four other guys on the court to go with Chris Walker. I like the kids we have that’s around him. They’re no basketball stars, but those guys are going to play hard.
“They’re going to really be behind him and play twice as hard. No one man beats any team. If that was the case, Lebron (James) would have never left Cleveland.”
Most teams forced to confront Walker in the post elect to swarm him with defenders and force the ball out of his hands. Most high school teams don’t have a talented 6-foot-7 senior of their own, such as Malone enjoys with Ty Baker.
Baker, whose younger brother Chai is the Tigers’ leading scorer, isn’t going to back down from any challenge, particularly this one, Malone coach Steve Welch said.
“(Walker is) basically unstoppable with his offensive repertoire and his athleticism and how physical he is,” Baker said. “To have any kid (defend Walker) on his own is almost a joke. At the same time, Ty really does take it personal, and he wants to do a good job on Chris because he’s such a highly touted player. … Also, you have to be intelligent and not let Ty get into any foul trouble.”
Welch said the older Baker is getting attention from various college programs. Playing well against one of the nation’s premier prospects in such an important game is one way to impress suitors.
“Whatever it is, Ty is looking forward to the challenge,” Welch said. “We’re country boys up here, and we look forward to that.”
White, who noted that Holmes County voluntarily gave 40 percent of its tickets to Malone in a response to Malone’s similar gesture in regionals last year, said he expects a sellout crowd — and a contentious struggle between two good basketball teams.
“It’s going to be tough,” White said. “We played Malone last year when we went over and played them in the regional semifinals, and they came out with a victory. I’m sure they’ll come in here with a lot of confidence that they can do the same thing this year. I think they’re a better team this year than they were last year. They’re returning guys that are very good that give us some matchup problems.
“The Baker boys are excellent players, and the one problem they’ve got on us is that they have a strong bench. Malone is 10 deep, whereas we’re five, six deep. It’s going to be a tough task for us. But the kids are upbeat. We’re familiar with Malone and their players. We’re looking forward to it.”
Cottondale, meanwhile, will have to beat West Gadsden for the second time this season to advance to state. Hornets coach Chris Obert said his players are hungry for the opportunity.
“It’s a big moment, but it’s one I feel the kids have worked hard to get to,” Obert said. “The guys have exceeded most people’s expectations. I don’t think they’re satisfied with where they’re at. They want a little more out of the season. Hopefully we can try to put it together and make it happen.”
The Hornets’ athleticism overwhelmed Bozeman early in their regional semifinal matchup before Cottondale had to hang on late for the victory. Cottondale opened the door for the Bucks to come back with a bevy of turnovers in the second half.
“We can’t get out of whack,” Obert said. “It’s going to be a big challenge. One, it’s at their gym, and it will be a hostile environment. I told them that to me it’s more important who we’re playing than where we’re playing.
“Sure, we’d like to be at home. We do play well at home. But it’s an opportunity to play in front of a big crowd, a hostile crowd. It should be fun.”