Tonight's Fort Mill-Northwestern boys basketball game will put all seven Region 3-AAAA teams on even ground heading into Tuesday's full slate.
The matchup is a make-up game from two weeks ago, and then some. After tonight, all seven teams will have played 10 region games with two weeks -- four games -- remaining on the schedule.
Fort Mill (19-0) is ahead of the pack at 9-0, two games in front of second-place Northwestern. The Trojans always play the Yellow Jackets tough, so Fort Mill goes into the game knowing Mike Gossett's Northwestern squad (10-9, 7-2) is no pushover.
"We've had some good battles with Northwestern over the years," Fort Mill coach Bailey Jackson said. "Last year's game at our place came down to the last couple of possessions.
"We didn't have a good game against Clover last week, but we had a hard practice on Wednesday and got it going again on Friday against Rock Hill. But I was pleased with our outside game. We hit 12 3s against Clover and 10 against Rock Hill."
Since Jan. 1, 2006, Fort Mill has lost only seven games -- three in '06, four last year and none this season.
Fort Mill is No. 1 in the state. In question is whether the Yellow Jackets can go undefeated in the region and repeat the Class AAAA state championship they won last year.
The Yellow Jackets stumbled last year, losing their final region game against South Pointe. But they rebounded and stormed to the championship despite being dubbed the underdog in their final two games.
Although this year's Fort Mill team runs the same offense as last season, "Baileyball" has taken on a new dimension. The Yellow Jackets still play a patient game based on passing until an open shot is there, but they are taller and have a better running game when the situation is there.
Four starters graduated, but Jackson returned Chalmers Rogers, a talented 6-foot-7 center, and a bench of good reserves who saw extended playing time last year.
"This bunch of kids might be the most fun I've ever coached," Jackson said. "They work hard on their shooting and it shows.
"We push the ball and kick it out more this season. This is a talented group, but we don't play the half-court game as well as we did last season."
There are several things to watch tonight:
• THE BATTLE INSIDE: Rogers and Northwestern's 6-7 center Taylor Shugart have waged some fierce battles under the boards the past two years. It will be the same tonight. Rogers averages 18.3 points and 8.5 rebounds. Shugart is scoring 12.6 points and pulling down six rebounds per outing.
• GUARD PLAY: Both teams will play tight man defense and try to cut off the passing lanes. With the lanes clogged, perimeter shooting will be a key. Fort Mill relies on Garrett Copeland, Torrell Priest and Peyton Barker. Northwestern counters with Zach Beaver and Will King, who can burn the nets from 3-point range when hot.
• RUNNING GAME: Fort Mill is taller and has shown it can run. With Shugart likely on Rogers, 6-6 Cam Smith will be a weapon the Yellow Jackets will count on to pound the boards and fire the outlet pass to his teammates.
• FREE THROWS: Gotta make 'em tonight. The team that shoots best from the line usually wins this one. Fort Mill is good at the stripe -- shooting 73 percent as a team and with three starters at 80 percent or better. Northwestern has been up and down.
• COACHING: Neither coach will hesitate to make moves as the game progresses. In past games, this one has resembled a chess match. The 10 players that start might not be the same 10 on the floor late in the game, and not because of foul trouble.
The top four teams in the region are assured spots in the Upper State playoffs, which begin Feb. 13.
Northwestern and Fort Mill are locks and meet again on Feb. 5 at Fort Mill. If the Trojans win out, they win the region title. If Fort Mill wins two more games, including one of the two against the Trojans, the Yellow Jackets are the outright champions for the second straight year.
Fort Mill at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m.
South Pointe at Clover, 6:30 p.m.
York at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m.
Fort Mill at Nation Ford, 6:30 p.m.
Lancaster at Rock Hill, 6:30 p.m.
Northwestern at Clover, 6:30 p.m.
Lancaster at Fort Mill, 6:30 p.m.
Nation Ford at York, 6:30 p.m.
Rock Hill at South Pointe, 6:30 p.m.
Nation Ford at Clover, 6:30 p.m.
Northwestern at Fort Mill, 6:30 p.m.
South Pointe at Lancaster, 6:30 p.m.
York at Rock Hill, 6:30 p.m.
Clover at York
Fort Mill at South Pointe
Lancaster at Nation Ford, 6:30 p.m.
Rock Hill at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m.
• Note: Varsity girls play at 6:30 p.m., followed by the boys at 8