Basketball games pitting Northwest Whitfield’s Lady Bruins and Dalton’s Lady Catamounts are always crucial in the overall scheme of Region 7-4A North.

More often than not they determine regular-season championships and key postseason seeding positions.

This season is no different. The first of two games between the rivals has been talked about for weeks. Now, the only thing left to do is play.

The fifth-ranked Lady Cats (18-1, 12-1 Region 7-4A) host the Lady Bruins (16-2, 11-0) today at 7 p.m. in the Cats Den.

Northwest, ranked for most of the season by GaSports.com, strangely dropped out of the statewide rankings despite stretching its winning streak to five games last weekend. The Lady Bruins haven’t lost since playing in the Deep South Classic in late December.

Fifth-ranked Dalton comes into the game also riding a five-game winning streak. The Lady Cats suffered their only loss of the season 70-64 at Rome on Jan. 6.

None of that matters now.

It’s all about tonight’s showdown.

“To girls from both teams, these games are not about effort or seedings for the postseason tournament,” Dalton coach Jeff McKinney said. “It’s more about not wanting my neighbor to beat me.

“If both teams were 0-18 our girls would still be excited about playing Northwest, and I’m sure Northwest’s girls feel the same way.”

Lady Bruins coach Margaret Stockburger, who has been around the rivalry for more than two decades, is keenly aware of the intensity surrounding the Northwest-Dalton matchup.

“As long as I’ve been at Northwest, there has been a rivalry with Dalton,” Stockburger said. “Players from both teams know each other, some play on the same summer ball teams. It’s a big rivalry. I know everybody around here has been talking about this basketball game for a long time.”

The Lady Cats are coming off a 56-44 victory at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe on Tuesday.

The Lady Bruins haven’t played since Saturday when they broke away from Southeast in the second half to win 64-34.

Dalton will start Lacie Coquerille, Jerrica Johnson, Whitney Mayo, Stephanie Susen and Liz Coffey, filling in for Megan Waycaster, who is coming back from an injury.

Mayo is the Lady Cats’ leading scorer with a 13.0-point average. Susen, an inside force, scores 12.4 points per game and Coquerille 10.9. Johnson averages 7.3 points and Coffey 5.4.

“When we play Northwest it’s always a big game,” said Mayo, who scored her 1,000th point in the win over LFO. “They play in-your-face defense. Our biggest thing is we can’t turn the ball over and we have to play good defense.”

Mayo said she was unaware of her career point total until after the LFO game.

“I was more happy that we won the ballgame,” she said.

Northwest, which leads the series 14-7 in games played since Stockburger became head coach in the 1996-97 season, will start Briana Chumley, Brinkley Knowles, Bethany McArthur, Vanessa Jackson and Larken Logan.

Susen, a senior, has played in every Lady Cats game against Northwest except one in her freshman season. She knows what to expect.

“Both teams are really good,” she said. “I’ve played a lot against Larken. I really look forward to the game. Everybody will be excited.”

In addition to Logan, Susen will also have to contend with Northwest’s Samantha Avery, who averages 8.1 points, a team-high 7.8 rebounds and a second-best 47.9 field goal percentage.

“I think I’m faster than Larken and Samantha and that’s what I’ll have to rely on,” Susen said. “I’ll have to front them when we’re on defense. I’ve got to play hard and give it everything.”

Logan thinks the Lady Bruins must do three critical things to be successful against Dalton.

“We have to play good pressure defense, block out and rebound,” she said.

As for battling Susen inside, Logan said, “I must play hard and give it everything I have.”

Chumley said the Lady Bruins will have to keep after the Lady Cats defensively for four quarters.

“You can’t have an off night playing defense,” she said. “And we work real hard on our defense every day in practice.”

Chumley is the Lady Cats’ leading scorer at 10.2 points per game. Brinkley Knowles is second at 9.3 and then comes Bethany McArthur at 9.1, Vanessa Jackson at 8.7 and Logan at 8.1.

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