When girls' basketball coaches in Georgia subregion 7B-AAAA say any number of teams are capable of winning the region tournament, they're not just blowing smoke.
If the regular season has been any indication, six teams can be considered favorites to leave Dalton next week with the title. Four of those are in the B subregion, where even after the final regular-season game had been played, the final pecking order for the tournament had to go overtime.
With Northwest Whitfield's win Thursday night over Heritage, Northwest's Lady Bruins and Dalton ended league play tied at 7-3. Since they had split their two meetings, a coin flip was needed to determine the top seed, with Northwest also winning that.
Heritage and Southeast Whitfield, each 6-4 in league play, had to determine similarly the third seed, with Southeast winning that one.
"I do think any one of six teams can win it," said Heritage coach Eddie Bryant, including A subregion top teams Pickens County and River Ridge as contenders. "It's so close and there is more balance in this region than at any time since we've been in it."
Each of the four B leaders has had its moments. Defending champion Dalton (19-6) started league play 6-0, but losses to Heritage and Northwest brought the Lady Catamounts back to the pack. Northwest lost back-to-back games to Dalton and Southeast, then won six straight to get in it, while Heritage, after an 0-3 start, won seven straight league games before Thursday's loss.
Southeast made teams take notice when Mike Durham's Lady Raiders downed Heritage and Northwest to start league play, but losing twice to Dalton knocked them out of any shot at a No. 1 seed.
"The parity in the league is obvious, but to us the big thing is the return of the rivalries," said Northwest coach Greg Brown, whose team has been in an Atlanta-area region the last four years. "The excitement is back in the area with girls' basketball, and literally any of the four teams in our subregion can win this thing."
If anything ties the teams together, it's defense and depth. While there are few stars among the teams, players such as Heritage's Alex Belk and Jada Hubbard, Dalton's Maddie Howell and Northwest Whitfield's Autumn Blackwell and Kaitlin Wade have stood out. Of the seven games among the four teams before Thursday, only one (Dalton's early win over Northwest) ended with more than a 10-point margin.
"It's been a great race," Heritage's Bryant said. "We've lost in overtime to Southeast and in two overtimes to Northwest, and most of our region games have been like that. That should help all these teams should we make the playoffs."
The tournament gets under way Saturday with the No. 5 and 6 seeds facing off. The main draw begins Monday. The top four teams will advance to the state tournament.