Cartersville faces St. Pius at state for 3rd time in 4 years

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The state playoffs in any sport are interesting as it creates new and unfamiliar matchups with teams who do not typically face each other. However, in the case of the Cartersville and St. Pius boys basketball teams, meetings in the tournament are becoming commonplace.

The two schools will be matching up in the state playoffs for the third time in four years when they play tonight in the first round of the Class 4A tournament at 7 p.m. in the Storm Center.

“It’s crazy how it works out,” Cartersville head coach Mike Tobin said of facing St. Pius again. “All three times it’ll be at our place. There’s 32 teams [in the tournament field] to start out, and to play them three out of four years, it’s crazy how it all works out.”

Tonight’s game will serve as the rubber match between the two schools as St. Pius ended Cartersville’s season in the second round during the 2013 state playoffs. The next year, the Canes defeated St. Pius by a score of 59-40 in the second round of the Class 3A state playoffs.

This year’s contest will be a first-round game, and although the Canes are a No. 1 seed out of Region 7-AAAA, St. Pius is not a typical No. 4 seed. The Golden Lions placed fourth in the Region 6-AAAA tournament, which is considered to be undoubtedly the most competitive region in the classification. At one point in the season, Region 6-AAAA teams Lithonia, St. Pius and Grady occupied three of the top four spots in the Score Atlanta Class 4A rankings.

In the last rankings, released on Feb. 2, St. Pius was ranked fourth in Class 4A.

Despite St. Pius’ high ranking, the Lions lost in the region tournament semifinals after holding a 15-point lead over Grady, and then lost to Columbia in the third-place game.

Despite the upset losses in the region tournament, Tobin said St. Pius is the best No. 4 seed in the state tournament.

“They had, pretty much the whole year, three out of the top five teams in the whole state,” Tobin said of St. Pius’ Region 6. “... Without a doubt, we have the toughest first-round game for a No. 1 seed. But it’s still pretty doggone good if you’re still playing this time of year.”

St. Pius is led by 6-foot-6 all-region player Kerney Lane. The left-handed senior is averaging 18.8 points and eight rebounds per game. The Lions also have a 6-7 senior center, Jakob Spitzer. The second-leading scorer is a slasher in 6-1 Christian Merrill. In addition, St. Pius will feature a strong shooter and defender in 6-1 Chandler Parks, and a pass-first point guard and hard-nosed defender Matthew Gonzalo.

“Everybody I talked to said [Lane is] a heck of a player,” Tobin said of St. Pius’ personnel. “We have about six tapes on them, and he looks pretty doggone good. It’s going to be a tough challenge. He’s real solid. And then Chris Merrill, he’s their second-leading scorer and they’re both pretty good on offense. All the kids come in for them and do a good job of playing defense. They come in and draw charges and they’re physical. It should be a real good challenge for us.”

St. Pius starts four players 6-feet tall or taller, and then have three more six-footers coming off the bench. To counteract the Lions’ size, Cartersville has 6-3 center Travon Davis, 6-1 forward Kobie Whitfield, 6-5 freshman Isaac Gridley and 6-foot forward JKobe Orr. In the backcourt and on the wings, T.J. Horton, Cade Archer, Gabe Gridley and Jaylon Pugh are all listed at 6-feet or taller.

“Size-wise, we have some kids who can go, and we have some good quickness,” Tobin said. “The biggest challenge, I think, is going to be rebounding. We have to try to keep them off the boards. Obviously, we’re giving up height. Hopefully, if we fundamentally box them out, we’ll have a good chance at getting the rebounds.”

With St. Pius’ tall lineup, the Lions can cause problems with their fullcourt press, which they will employ often.

“We faced quite a few teams that pressed,” Tobin said. “We’ve spent a ton of time the last few days working on attacking the press. We’re going to try to do the things we do. We think we have stuff in place that’s really solid. But it’s tough when you have a kid on the ball who’s 6-7. But I think we’re definitely prepared.”

Cartersville also will have the advantage of playing at home after securing the No. 1 seed in Region 7-AAAA with its 46-43 championship game win Saturday over Heritage.

“We’re hoping it’ll be a good crowd,” Tobin said of hosting the playoff game. “It should be, hopefully, a real good basketball game. A lot of people in town like basketball. As a matter of fact, we got done with practice [Tuesday] and there was a car that pulled up looking to buy a ticket. So, hopefully, we’ll have a good crowd there.”