Indians Open League Play Against Familiar Foe
January 3, 2008
By Dustin Kent (JC Floridian)
After coasting through most of its first 18 games, all wins, the Chipola Indians (18-0) will open Panhandle Conference play Saturday in Tallahassee against a familiar foe in the talented Eagles.
The nation's top-ranked team, the Indians have only seriously been tested twice this season, once in an 88-87 overtime thriller against Palm Beach, and more recently against nationally-ranked Three Rivers in a 73-66 Chipola victory.
Most of the other victories have come relatively easy for the deep and talented Indians, though they're sure to meet stiff resistance from the Eagles (14-1), who are led by preseason All-American guard Jermaine Dixon.
"TCC is a great team, well-coached...it's going to be a great game," Chipola coach Greg Heiar said Thursday. "And you never know what's going to happen with the first conference game of the year."
However, when the Eagles and Indians have played in the last couple of years, you could pretty much bank on a highly-competitive, extremely-intense basketball game.
The teams played an epic, triple-overtime state title game two seasons ago, won by TCC, then played another double-overtime classic last season at Chipola, also won by the Eagles.
The Indians bounced back to take the next two from TCC last season to claim their fourth consecutive conference championship.
"The rivalry has definitely intensified," Heiar said of the two teams. "Because of that rivalry, you'll have such an intense environment (Saturday in Tallahassee) that it will be a tough place to play.”
"I just hope that our depth and our ability to rotate so many quality players will take over in the end."
Whereas the Eagles use a more traditional eight-man rotation, Chipola regularly rotates as many as 11 players.
Chipola's depth is complimented by terrific balance, with five Indians averaging double figure points, led by Mario Little's 16 points per game.
Freshman power forward Gary Flowers is also having a stellar season, averaging 14.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.8 blocks and 2.1 steals per contest.
Clevin Hannah's 10.1 points, 5.6 assists, 2.1 steals and deadeye shooting from long distance have given consistent production from the point guard spot.
The Eagles won't be short on playmakers either, with sharpshooting sophomore Shamar Coombs complimenting Dixon on the perimeter.
Coombs averages 17.2 points per game and shoots over 42 percent from the 3-point line.
On the interior, TCC presents a challenge unlike anything the Indians are likely to face all year in 7-foot-3-inch center Jason Bennett, who has been a dominant defensive force for the Eagles this season, blocking 4.5 shots per game.
Heiar said that Bennett's presence has a tremendous influence on the Eagles' success.
"I think he's the reason why TCC has looked better every time I've seen them play," the coach said. "He really controls the paint defensively. As a team, they're getting better and Bennett getting better has a lot to do with that."
But the biggest challenge for the Indians Saturday is still likely to be defending the All-America candidate Dixon. The 6-foot-3-inch guard is fast and physical and, as a lefty, gives the defense a different look than it's used to seeing.
"He's just a great player," Heiar said. "He's very explosive in transition and does a great job getting to the rim. But it's not about whose guarding Dixon, it's about the other four guys on the court playing great help and team defense. We just have to make him work extremely hard to get his points.”
"It's going to be a major challenge for us defending Dixon and Coombs for 40 minutes."
Heiar said he wasn't too concerned about his team not being pushed very often in the non-conference schedule and that his team was ready for league play.
"I think the Palm Beach and Three Rivers games were games we can build on," he said. "For us, it's about us, not who we play. We have to stay focused, execute our game plan and play hard for 40 minutes.”
"But our guys are excited and ready for conference play. This is why they came to Chipola, to play in games like this."
The Indians return home Jan. 12 against Okaloosa-Walton. The Raiders are ranked No. 19 in the nation and No. 2 in the state.