Columbus forward Tatyana Wyatt has known players on the Carver girls basketball team for quite some time. She grew up around several of them in Columbus, and she played with Carver guard Mya Millner on Wyatt’s first AAU basketball team.
“It's actually pretty fun,” Wyatt said of matchups with Carver. “But once I step on the court, I play like I don't even know them. We’re friends off the court, not on.”
Those friendships will face their toughest test Friday, as Wyatt’s Lady Blue Devils and Millner’s Lady Tigers will play for the right to bring a state championship back to Columbus.
Columbus’ win over Sandy Creek and Carver’s victory against Cross Creek propelled the two Muscogee County schools into the Class 4A state title game at 6:00 p.m. in Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion. The matchup marks the fourth time these two teams will play in the 2016-2017 season and the first time two basketball teams from Columbus have faced off in the title game.
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The inevitable outcome of a title returning to Columbus is one Carver head coach Anson Hundley thinks should bring some hard-earned recognition to the city.
“This is another chance for Columbus to show how good we are in girls basketball,” Hundley said. “We’ve already had Kendrick High School win two state championships. We’re just trying to follow in the path of some of the great teams that have come out of Columbus. Hopefully, we’ll get the whole state to recognize Columbus as a top-tier basketball city.”
While the city will have a championship to celebrate at the game’s end, it’s what happens during those 32 minutes of action that onlookers will watch closely. The childhood connections among several players makes for interesting interactions, but the play of each team over the past few seasons is what has made for entertaining basketball.
Columbus head coach Joe Cherrone said he feels the rivalry between the two programs really found life last season, when Carver topped Columbus 54-48 in Columbus’ gym. The Carver/Columbus series was competitive in the first two meetings this season, as Carver beat an Ariyah Copeland-less Columbus team in December before Columbus returned the favor in January.
The matchup on Feb. 10, however, kicked the rivalry up to a whole new notch.
After Columbus led for the majority of the region tournament championship game, Millner delivered a dagger in the form of a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Carver a 54-53 victory. As the Lady Tigers swarmed Millner and celebrated their region title, several Lady Blue Devils stood around in shock, including Millner’s old AAU teammate.
“I was honestly just at a loss for words,” Wyatt said. “I didn’t even know she would've been the one to take the shot. After that night, I stopped thinking about it and began to prepare for the journey to a state championship.”
According to Cherrone, Wyatt wasn’t the only Columbus player to take the team’s loss as a motivational tool for the playoffs.
“Our girls, they felt like they should have taken away the win in that region championship game,” Cherrone said. “They humbled themselves, and now they have the chance to avenge that in a bigger title game. This is for the best team in 4A in the state of Georgia.”
Hundley said it’s no big secret Columbus is eager for revenge. He said another strenuous challenge for his Lady Tigers is nothing new, as the team has faced and conquered so many over the course of the season.
Several of those obstacles have already been dished out by the Blue Devils. Wyatt and Copeland are 6-foot-3, which leaves them towering over the Lady Tigers. That mismatch, however, was something Carver already overcame twice this season.
They’ll have to do it again in order to win it all.
“We’ve got to be prepared to withstand the hard hits at the beginning,” Hundley said. “We have to come out and play our game. We cannot let them dictate the pace. We have to make sure the game is being played at the speed we like to play at.”
Each coach keyed on their team’s resilience in the semifinal games, saying that attitude had to be on display Friday in Atlanta. If the game fits the mold of the other showdowns, there is sure to be scoring runs and momentum twists aplenty. Tap out too soon, and you just might miss your shot at a ring.
But in the big picture, Cerrone and Hundley understood the importance of Friday’s game. Cerrone discussed how the sport of women’s basketball is still pushing for a fandom relative to the men’s game, while Hundley pointed out how football remains the talk of the town.
By Carver and Columbus making it to the finals, girls basketball in Columbus has deservedly reached center stage.
“We have some young ladies who are busting their butts to show they belong,” Hundley said. “I think the city should come out and support and show how proud they are, whichever team.
“It’s a big deal to our city to know that a state champion will be coming back.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports